My life after death "They’re dead": when I let myself be buried alive
There are five hammer blows that seal my death. Bam. Five strokes that are ringing in my ears. Bammbamm. Woody dust is stirred up. Bam. The lid closes. The gap of light becomes narrower and narrower. Bamm. Then suddenly it is so dark in the coffin that it doesn’t make any difference anymore whether I open or close my eyes. There are only walls of wood that press my arms against my body, there is warm, stuffy air that makes me breathe slowly, and there is: silence. Finally!
It may sound absurd, but far more unpleasant than the experience of being locked alive in a coffin for thirty minutes were the hours before, when I was forced to think fundamentally about my life; whether it was going well, whether I shouldn’t be happier. In short: What it means for me that one day, hopefully far away, I will lie in such a wooden coffin again?
"Death", says Kim Giho, who runs the Happy Dying company in South Korea operates "is the best teacher for life." Kim Giho organizes seminars in which participants simulate their own death and funeral, and thus, according to the theory, gain a better attitude toward life. "What do you regret about your life, what would you have liked to do differently??", asks Kim Giho. You don’t take much time in everyday life for these questions of conclusion. You are so long and so busy with life until it is over. Then it is too late for good resolutions. Then one screwed up.
I am 32 years old and have been very lucky so far, my life has been almost free of these terrible moments of catastrophe, illness, death, in which one automatically deals with the fact that life is not a matter of course, but death is. I wish that it will stay like this for a long time. But to voluntarily expose myself to Kim Giho’s questions and to learn something for life by dealing with my death, that’s what I found interesting: dying, testing, rethinking life, changing life.
Grief What I needed from my friends after the death of my father
Death is experienced as a sermon, a role play and a multimedia show
That’s why, five hours before I’m to enter the coffin, I’m sitting with seventeen Koreans in a Buddhist temple near Seoul, which looks like a classroom with its blackboard, desks and chairs. On the walls: Portraits of prominent deceased people such as Steve Jobs or Whitney Houston. And the saying: "Only if you know death, life is beautiful." Well hopefully. I look out of the window and see a stone Buddha about twenty meters high in the courtyard, squatting in lotus position and seeming to know a lot about death. In any case, the statue has no head.
Kim Giho’s assistant calls the deceased forward one by one and takes pictures of us: There is an old man, finely dressed, like a bank director, with his son, who also wears a well-behaved crown. There are many women between twenty and fifty. There I am. "Welcome to your last day", Kim Giho now calls into his microphone. Then he goes through the rows of chairs and asks everyone first why they want to be buried today. "My trip is coming soon", says the old man. "I want to know if it will be a good one." "I want to think about my life in peace", says his son. A woman in a light blue blouse says: "I want to become more positive."
A little later, I receive a folder of documents to put on the desk. On the right side: the image of a tombstone. On the left side: a photo of me, framed by a black ribbon. I in dead. The photo has a surreal, eerie effect, because I see something I can’t actually see. The philosopher Epicurus was of the opinion that one cannot fear death at all, because it does not affect one at all as a living, sentient being. Because: Where I exist, there is no death. And where death goes, life disappears. People, said the philosopher, are only afraid of the unimaginability of death.
Kim Giho wants the opposite. He wants to make death tangible through a mixture of sermon, role play and multimedia show. He shows us the famous scene from the movie "Ghost", in which Patrick Swayze’s soul detaches itself from his body and looks down on the world from above ("In death you have an overview of the world!"). He quotes Steve Jobs, of whom he thinks a lot, because Jobs always asked himself, even at seventeen: "If today were the last day of my life, I would do what I set out to do today?" He mixes interviews in which people talk about their near-death experiences ("Being dead was beautiful")!"), with a computer animated flight through space ("Death opens new perspectives") and shots of a Tibetan funeral. So a (real) corpse, whose (real) guts are being eaten by (real) vultures ("The body leaves, but the soul stays. Do not be afraid!"). In addition, again and again pictures of mangled cars, flooded villages, coffins in gymnasiums, Korean celebrities who died young. Singer: "Dead!" Ex-president: "Dead!" TV presenter: "Even dead!"
Kim Giho asks in a loud voice: "And? How much time do you have left?" Most people, he lectures, think they’re going to live to ninety, and then they calculate down: I’ve got fifty, forty, thirty years left. "But unfortunately this is wrong! We are born in a certain order, but death doesn’t follow any order! He lurks at every corner."
If we were immortal, we wouldn’t need religion
Humans are the only living creatures that are aware of their mortality. The fear of death, the uncertainty, the brooding, is what makes us human. Roman generals always had a slave next to them during their splendid triumphal processions, who gave them "Memento moriendum esse" whispered in your ear "Remember that you must die!", so that they do not forget that they are not gods. The artists and builders of the magnificent Baroque churches hid skeletons and skulls everywhere to remind people of their death, which was usually quite close at the time.
Kim Giho has this memento mori-Principle methodically somewhat advanced, it hammers into our heads like a mortician hammers nails into a coffin. So long that I can almost speak his sentences and no longer see the horror images. His lecture makes me weary, tired of dying. Maybe he’s supposed to. You are told so many times, you are going to die, your coffin is already waiting (and indeed it is), that I can’t help but rejoice in life anymore.
After the next scary video I have finally had enough, want to visit the Buddha in the courtyard, want to ask him if he at least had a head in his last life. Buddhists do not believe in life after death in the Christian or Islamic sense. But in a kind of cycle model of birth and death and the possibility to say goodbye to this exhausting loop into nirvana through continuous meditation at some point in time. But the comforting idea that man is more than matter, that there is something waiting for the soul after death, is common to all religions. The philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach concluded from this: Without death no religion. If we were immortal, we would not need all this, the sacred writings, the incense and the statues without heads.
But because people are not immortal, neither in Korea nor in Mecca nor in Rome, Kim Giho’s death seminar would probably work in any country (he is also thinking about internationalizing the business). Still, of course, one wonders why "Happy Dying" just invented in South Korea. Is it because the suicide rate here is higher than in any other industrialized country? Or maybe it’s that the pursuit of individual happiness, which is taken for granted in the Western world, is a new idea in Korea. In the conservative country, people are expected to subordinate their personal goals and desires in life to tradition and family interests.
Strange as it sounds: By writing their obituaries in the seminar and living through their own funeral (an event where you really take center stage for a change), participants first become aware of their freedom and dreams. At least that’s what Kim Giho says.
"So. We die now. Close your eyes. You are dead."
Then the curtains in the temple are closed and burning candles are distributed, which we are to place in front of our death image. The flickering light makes the classroom a spooky place: Fifteen people in front of their own death shrine. "So. We die now", says Kim Giho, raising his arms. "Close your eyes. Imagine everything I am about to tell you exactly." He pauses. Then he says: "You are dead." Pause. "You are hovering over your corpse. Imagine this! You look at your dead body." Pause. "You are watching your own funeral. Who is there? Who does not?" Pause. "What do people say about you? What is written on your tombstone?" Pause. "Now say goodbye to your family, to your friends, because you are slowly becoming light. You become air!"
After the overstimulation, it is pleasant to close the eyes. I have trouble imagining my own corpse, though. I try it with logic: How I look as a corpse depends presumably on the cause of death. I think about what my ending could be, and I keep coming up with it: Country Road. Motorcycle. Leaves on a damp road. Not good!
It is easier for me to imagine my grave: An earthy rectangle in a meadow, trees with warm light streaming through, birds chirping. "Cliche", I think. But as I picture my friends and family standing somewhat forlornly on the lawn looking at my casket, the thought exercise begins to get a little oppressive. Seeing the people I care about so much so sadly constricts my throat. What they would say about me? That I was a good friend? Hopefully. That I could be very happy when I was happy, but also very unhappy when things didn’t go so well? Perhaps. That I could have been a little kinder to myself sometimes? Probably.
Dying as stress. Like a final exam. Only in a minor key
Meditating on my own death is not necessarily pleasant, but interesting in a morbid way. It is a standard criticism of modern society that it represses death. In the course of the past century, death and the dying have disappeared further and further from private and public space and have been outsourced to sealed-off special spaces such as hospitals and hospices. And those who no longer see death don’t think about it either. But this thesis is no longer true. We think of video gravestones and virtual cemeteries. We are investigating in the pathology series "CSI" by camera flight the wounds and body orifices of the corpses. "Body Worlds became the most successful exhibition of all time. We can hardly be accused of a collective repression of death. On the contrary. We do not repress death itself. But each of us suppresses his own death.
Of course, that goes for me too.
In front of me there are now notes full of questions that I am supposed to fill in within an hour. First of all the own obituary as a cloze text. "________ died at __ years old. The surviving family members are ________. Friends will remember him as _______." Still goes. Even more difficult I find the gravestone design. What slogan do you want to shout to the world from beyond the grave?? You can solve the problem in a silly way, like Frank Sinatra, who chose "The best is yet to come". Even the artist Marcel Duchamp did not miss one last punch line and the sentence "Incidentally, it is always the others who die" To chisel on the tombstone. The word that gets stuck in my head when thinking about my own funeral is: too bad. So I think about it for a moment, something like "Too bad actually" or "Oops! Crap!" but then decide against the irony. "Here lies one who loved people and life very much. And actually wasn’t finished with it at all."
On the next form, the next questions are already waiting: What am I grateful for?? What makes me proud? What disappointed me? Imagine you have six months to live. What else do you want to do? What do you want to see? Who do you spend the time with? Phew. Dying as stress. These are all questions I could spend a whole day thinking about. To work through one after the other, overwhelms me. Emotional. Rational. But at least the other seminar participants feel the same way. My seat neighbors stare at the paper as distraught as I do, tearing their hair, nibbling on their pens, focused and preoccupied with themselves. The whole thing reminds me of the Abi exam. Only in minor.
"The three most important things in my life?" Hmm … love, friends, family.
"The lesson of the past life?" Do not be afraid!
"Was I happy? What made me happy?" Yes, mostly. The people around me.
No matter how much effort I put in and no matter how much I dig in, think, ponder, when I look at my answers, I feel a little ashamed. Life is a crazy, surprising, complex thing. My answers are all rather: simple. Maybe I am too tired. Or not smart enough. But maybe that’s part of the realization: life isn’t that complicated. The banality of goodness. Spend less time in the office, create more great moments and spend time with the people you love! And: Will already!
It’s all fake. But the sadness feels real
Does the principle of Kim Giho and "Happy Dying" work? So in fact? In a way I do, but I can’t quite give myself over to the funeral simulation, to the eventual death. In reality, dying is often associated with pain, suffering and loneliness. We don’t simulate these "side effects" here. The "Happy Dying-Seminary, on the contrary, is an extreme manifestation of the self-awareness boom, a close relative of high ropes courses, bungee jumping, and tightrope walking classes, activities that people want to become more fearless, open, and efficient. We die a simulated wellness death here to improve our lives. How contemporary: death as a tool for self-optimization.
We put on the traditional death robes made of coarse linen. Now there is no turning back. The coffin is waiting. Before that, Kim Giho says, we have to write a farewell speech and read it aloud. An irritated murmur goes through the room. But then it is so quiet that you can hear the scratching of the pens. And at some point I hear: sobs, sighs, quiet crying. A deep sadness hangs in the dark room and I’m not really dazzling either. I know, of course, that it’s all fake! But the sadness I feel as I consider, under the supervision of my dead self, what words I should use to say goodbye to life and people actually feels real. Heavy. Lump. At. Neck. "Memento mori is killing me. But in the meantime something beautiful happens: I remember things that I had not thought about for a very, very long time. I remember skiing with grandma, campfires with Micha and Ben in the Uckermark, kisses and breakups, travel and family chaos, and party nights with Max.
It’s like my inner cameraman pulls the film tapes out of his dusty archives and plays it as an early premiere before my eyes. And the longer the film runs, the lighter I feel. I like the movie. I especially like that I feel the need to thank all the people who play leading roles in my life. And I’m fine with the stupid scenes, which of course there are: people you treated like shit or didn’t love back the way you should have, friends who disappeared, dark days, depressions, fear and doubt. But the negative scenes are well proportioned to the highlights. I am so happy about the clarity of this feeling that at the end of my farewell speech I write the insane sentence: "I love you and I had a really nice life, thanks to you!" And actually mean it.