Nearly 4 out of 5 people who died last year were cremated, reflecting a trend that has caught on as people seek simpler and more convenient funeral procedures.
The cremation rate surpassed the burial rate in 2005, and has steadily increased since, reaching 77 percent last year, according to the Ministry of Health and Welfare.
This is a tectonic shift in a society dominated by Confucian culture, which places great importance on filial piety. Children of the deceased traditionally sought out burial sites with good feng shui that would guarantee a good rest for the dead and good fortune for future generations.
A 1981 law concerning burials and graves sought to change the country’s often extravagant and wasteful funeral practices by regulating the size of the graves, but it had little impact on the centuries-old tradition.
Things began to change following the passage of a law in 1999, which aimed at containing the growth in the number graves and encouraging cremation, and in 2005 the number of cremations exceeded that of burials.
The current cremation capacity adequately meets demand, but some areas lack a crematorium. Residents of northern Gyeonggi Province must travel an hour to the nearest facility, and are charged 10 times the fee paid by local residents.
The aging population and the growing scarcity of burial sites will soon put a strain on the current system, especially as the cremation rate is expected to reach 80 percent in the next two to three years. While there is a need for additional crematoriums, not-in-my-backyard attitudes hinder plans for new facilities. A plan to build a crematorium in Gumi, North Gyeongsang Province, hit a hurdle when residents opposed it.
The not-in-my-backyard syndrome can be overcome, to some extent, by offering financial incentives. Incheon, for example, recently approved an ordinance that provides 10 percent of a local crematorium’s revenue to a fund that supports area residents. The facility currently raises 6 billion won in revenue annually. Building facilities that can be shared among several areas is also a practical solution.
Given the limited land available for burial sites, cremation is the only viable option for most people today. Local governments and communities should work together to meet the demand for a service that we will all require one day.