Coming clean on growing number of lonely deaths in South Korea
As Koreans grow old in solitude, companies exploit a rising market for after-death services
Though its overall economy has slowed, South Korea has one sector experiencing rapid growth: firms that are called in to clean up when someone dies alone.
In a country where the unravelling of Confucian traditions means that many elderly people are no longer cared for by family, more South Koreans are dying in solitude, after either taking their own lives or wasting away from neglect. Small companies provide services such as cleaning and sterilising a room where someone died and decomposed before they were detected. They can also dispose and incinerate the deceased's possessions.
It is government authorities that must remove the body, but these private companies are sometimes hired by landlords of tenants who had no known family, or by relatives of the deceased.
"Our business has almost doubled in the past year and more companies like us have begun operating recently," said Park Yeon-moon, 49, a director of BioEco, one such company.
These firms will remove and replace flooring to get rid of the stubborn smells that remain after a tenant's death. They also sterilise all exposed surfaces and purify the air with chemicals. The services cost anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, depending on the size of the space and the extent of the deceased's decomposition.
"Most of the bodies are not discovered until long after they have died, so we have to take care of the secretions and bad odours that have been caused," Park said.
According to Seoul government data, the number of people who died without any family or friends to claim their body has been steadily increasing: 206 in 2009, 273 in 2010, and 301 in 2011. The number of people who died alone without support or companionship but did have someone claim their body is almost certainly much higher.
And it is no longer only the elderly that are dying alone. As more young people in South Korea struggle to find spouses and permanent jobs, many are becoming depressed and committing suicide.
Park has encountered the sad cases of many young deceased. "I used to think it was only done by old people, but I've seen many young people who committed suicide," he said. "In most cases, the people who died alone lived alone in small studio apartments. I guess most were lonely."
Kim Hyun-chung, a psychiatrist at Seoul's National Medical Centre, believes rapid development has disrupted the family structures that once kept South Koreans grounded. "The country has developed so fast and the culture has changed quickly along with it," Kim said. "There's a generation gap between older people and their children, which can mean that family members can't confide in each other. This leads to arguments and situations where young people don't want their parents living with them, which was the tradition before."