Surging COVID-19 deaths overwhelm S. Korea’s crematoriums, delaying funerals by days

Posted on : 2022-03-23 16:45 KST Modified on : 2022-03-23 17:26 KST
35% of cumulative COVID deaths in South Korea happened since the start of 2022
Funeral hearses wait outside the Incheon municipal crematorium on March 22. (Lee Seung-wook/The Hankyoreh)
Funeral hearses wait outside the Incheon municipal crematorium on March 22. (Lee Seung-wook/The Hankyoreh)

“I live in Bucheon, Gyeonggi Province, so we should be going to the crematorium in Hwaseong, but they’re fully booked. We barely managed to book a nearby funeral home as well.”

This is the story of 62-year-old Choi Heung-geun, who the Hankyoreh spoke to on the afternoon of March 22 at a municipal crematorium in Incheon.

“My mother passed away on the 17th, but it’s taken until now to have her cremated. In the end, we’ve had to unwillingly hold a six-day funeral,” Choi continued. While there were 20 or so funeral hearses waiting in the funeral home’s parking lot, many buses were parked on the road outside, unable to enter.

“In the past, there were no funerals for people [who died of] COVID-19, but demand for funerals has risen now that the government eased restrictions,” said 45-year-old funeral hearse driver Jeong Jae-deok.

Starting Monday, the funeral home has been carrying out 13 cremations per day in each of its nine cremation chambers but is currently unable to accommodate the demand. An official from Incheon Facilities Corporation, which manages the city’s crematoriums, stated that cremating exhumed remains for reburial or relocation is “completely out of the question.”

The skyrocketing number of COVID-19 deaths in recent weeks has led to greater demand for cremations, causing a cremation commotion in the capital area. Seoul Memorial Park, the only crematorium in central Seoul, and Seoul Municipal Funeral Home (Byeokje Crematorium) in Goyang are both fully booked through Saturday. The online funeral booking site run by the Ministry of Health and Welfare (Ehaneul Funeral Information System) shows that reservations can be made up to five days in advance, including on the day itself, but there are no spaces left.

“We cremated around 90 bodies per day prior to COVID-19, but that’s now up to 130,” an official from Seoul Municipal Funeral Home said. “But demand for cremations is so high that it’s hard to make a booking.”

This is the result of rapidly rising COVID-19 deaths combined with the change in seasons. The total number of COVID deaths in Korea amounts to 13,141 in the two years and two months since the virus was first detected locally, and 5,083 (35%) of those have occurred in the last two months.

According to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, the average number of daily cremations in March across all 62 facilities in Korea was 730 from 2019 to 2021, but the figure jumped to 1,250 this year.

As it becomes difficult to reserve cremation services, more and more families are left with no choice but to hold four- to six-day funerals.

“The Yongin Forest of Tranquility municipal funeral center recently doubled the number of cremations and operating hours of their furnaces, making it comparatively easier to book one, but for most people the wait is 4-5 days,” said Cho Myeong-won, a funeral director at Yongin Seoul Hospital.

At the Funeral Culture Center in Seongnam, where the number of daily cremations has been increased from 46 to 52 as of Tuesday, center head Hong Cheol-gi stated, “Over the past week we have been made aware of 84 cases of people holding four- to five-day funerals.”

The situation is similar in some regions outside the capital area. Facilities such as Busan’s Yeongnak Park and Myeongbok Park in Daegu are fully booked until Saturday, March 26.

“Crematorium bookings are flooding in across the country,” said an official from Cheongsol Park Crematorium in Sacheon, Gangneung.

By Lee Jung-ha, staff reporter; Kim Gi-seong, staff reporter; Park Soo-hyuk, staff reporter; Son Go-eun, staff reporter; Lee Seung-wook, staff reporter

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