Burial Beads : A South Korean Tradition

One thing that all human cultures have in common is rituals around death. When someone in a community dies, each culture has different traditions to honor and remember the dead. While this is something that all human cultures share, the methods of remembrance vary greatly. Another thing that cultures share is that these traditions can change over time and due to outside circumstances. Here in the West, the traditional burial and funeral are giving way over to cremation, mainly due to a rise in the costs of cremation, funerals, and burials. Many people are choosing burial urns instead of caskets, because of the lower cost. In addition, urns are becoming more popular here in the West as more people are choosing to cremate their loved ones instead of opting for a full burial.

Changing Times in South Korea

The West isn’t the only place in the world that is adapting its burial practices due to outside influences like rising costs of cremation. In South Korea, there is a shortage of space in graveyards, leading to a law that passed in 2000 requiring families to remove the bodies of their dead from their graves after 60 years. This is because South Korea is a small country, and land, especially for graveyards, is at a premium. South Korea also has a large population. In 2018, an average of 582 people died per 10,000 people. In Seoul, a city that has a population of over fifty-one million, that is almost nine million deaths per year. So, it is clear why cemeteries in South Korea have had a hard time keeping up with the demand.

Since the law was passed so recently, the people of South Korea have adapted quickly, with only 3 out of 10 deceased being buried traditionally in 2011, compared to 6 out of 10 being buried traditionally in 2000.

While people in the West are opting for urns to hold the remains of their loved ones, (especially as urn technology expands, with a variety of specialized urns for holding and scattering the ashes arising), the people of South Korea are opting for a different, more decorative approach.

With cremation rates on the rise in South Korea due to the graveyard law (in one generation the rates for cremation went from 20.5% to 82.7%), instead of a decorative urn to hold their loved one’s ashes, people in South Korea are instead turning the ashes of their deceased family members into beautiful beads.

While these beads are generally not worn, they are beautiful. The beads come in a variety of colors ranging from “shiny blue-green, pink or black”, according to Time.com. Unlike the gemstones that some in the West turn their beloved’s remains into, these funeral beads in South Korea are typically not worn but displayed in clear containers, usually made of glass, or in dishes. It is a way for the South Koreans to keep their deceased loved ones close by, and honor their memory, while still upholding the law.

One of the main companies making beads out of the ashes of the deceased is called Bonhyang, or Death Bead. According to the founder and CEO of Death Bead, Bae Jae-yul, they made beads “for more than 500 people this year (2012).” The process of making beads from cremated remains costs about nine hundred dollars. In an interview, Bae states that “You don’t feel that these beads are creepy or scary. In fact, there’s a holiness and warmth to them.”.

These numbers jumped by 2015, with Bae Jae-yul saying they served more than 1000 customers in the past decade, and rival death bead company, Mikwang, claiming to have done even more business than Death Bead.

The death beads market is so popular in South Korea, that death bead businesses have tried launching in the United States, “but the idea did not gain the same popularity and was largely unsuccessful. Americans might take longer to come around to the phenomenon.”, according to Time.com

South Korean Tower

Why Death Beads Instead of Urns?

With the rise of cremation rates in South Korea, why aren’t more people choosing the traditional urn to hold the ashes of their deceased loved ones? Many South Koreans “don’t see keeping ashes in an urn, or scattering the ashes in nature, as an adequate form of honoring the dead.”. Korean funerals are “deeply rooted in Confucianism, even though few South Koreans identify as Confucian”. It is part of a family’s duty to their deceased family members to honor their dead and remember them in ways that allow the spirit of the deceased to pass on safely to the afterlife. Otherwise, the spirit of the dead might become a wandering ghost. So, it is very important to South Koreans to honor their dead and many are choosing the beautiful route of death beads.