Being present at your own funeral

One of the best scenes in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is when Tom and Huck sneak back from Jackson’s Island to watch their own funerals.

They’ve been missing for ages and everyone has assumed them drowned in the river and they watch from a vantage point in the church as one by one the townsfolk who so persecuted them in the past stand up and weepingly blurt their praises. Ah, the good people of St Petersburg, Missouri lament, if only we had recognized their sweet beautiful natures while they were still with us. Oh, sobs Becky Thatcher, if only she had appreciated Tom and still had the brass knob, his most prized possession, that he gave her a gift of love.

But wait! What’s this? There’s a rustle in the gallery, and a creak of the old church door, and here are Tom and Huck, alive and well, walking down the aisle of the church! It’s a miracle! The church minister leads a hymn of praise and everyone kisses and makes a fuss over the boys and gives them only the most playful cuffs on the head for causing so much worry.

It’s impossible to be a ten-year-old reading that chapter and not thrill to encounter one of your deepest daydreams being articulated. Surely it’s one of the primal convictions of every small child: that the world is unfair to you and that people are mean and if only you could die in plane crash or something, then everyone would realise how badly they had treated you and then they would be sorry and let you have lots of ice-cream. Only of course you don’t want to actually die in a plane crash – you want to be around to reap the rewards: you want to walk back in and have everyone be so grateful to see you that they omit even to punish you for doing something so selfish and cruel as to pretend to be dead.

I think that’s probably one of the first times that a child is confronted with the long series of life’s bitter ironies: if only I could somehow die but still be around.

At the Andong University in Seoul a certain Mr Kim Ki-ho runs a programme trying to achieve just that. South Korea’s suicide rate is consistently one of the five highest in the world, sometimes climbing as high as second. In 2016 an average of 43 South Koreans took their lives every day. Kim Ki-ho believes that people think a lot about death but not in a constructively engaged way, so he started the “Happy Dying” sessions.

Participants are given a Pre-Funeral lecture to prepare them and focus their intentions, then they’re presented with a formalized framed funeral photograph of themselves. They sit down to write their own brief biographies, detailed wills and final farewell notes to loved ones. They compose their own eulogies and choose the words for the tombstones. They’re encouraged to think deeply and carefully about their lives and the people they’re leaving behind. This is the last day of their lives, there’s no tomorrow, so nothing should be avoided or left unsaid.

Depending on the season and the weather, a black-robed death master then leads them through nearby woods to a specially prepared clearing, or to a large candle-lit room inside the university. Participants dress in the traditional Korean linen death shrouds and climb into simple coffins. The death master binds their wrists and covers their eyes with funeral linen. He extinguishes their candle and they lie in their coffins, meditating on their lives and their deaths. After a while the death master comes around and places the lids on the coffins.

Not every graduate of the Happy Dying programme is a fan, but there are many repeat customers, coming back every few years for top-up sessions. Others say the experience caused them to think more carefully about the consequences of their death; others say that it caused them to find a new joy in their lives, a deeper gratitude and vibrancy.

All of which sounds far more positive than the experience of a gentleman named Amir Vehabovic, who at the age of 45 decided to fake his own death in order to see how many people would pitch up to his funeral in the grisly northern Serbian town of Gradiska.

Cash in hand will take you a long way in the badlands of Gradiska so Amir had no difficulty in purchasing a fake death certificate for himself and bribing the undertaker to bury an empty coffin. Death notices were placed in the local newspaper and funeral invitations were sent to the 45 most important people in his life. Amir chose a comfortable spot behind some bushes in the cemetery, where he sat on a camping chair with a snuggly blanket and a thermos of piping coffee to enjoy the proceedings.

His elderly mother was the first to arrive in her widow’s weeds, sad but resigned. That’s where the good news ended for Amir. It’s unclear whether he was planning to enact his triumphant resurrection at the funeral itself, emerging from behind the bushes like a reborn Balkan Tom Sawyer, but he had to settle for sending individual cards to all the other 44 invited guests the next day, berating them for not showing up:

“My so-called friends!” said the cards. “It just goes to show who in this life you can really count on.”

Oh, Amir. In death as in life, never ask a question if you don’t want the answer.

The Times, 28 June 2018