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Ashes to beads: South Koreans honour the dead in new way

The concept of cremation has taken another turn in South Korea, as some people are now turning the ashes of their loved ones into beads. 

INCHEON: Most South Koreans choose to bury the dead - a practice that adheres to traditional Confucian belief by allowing people to respect the dead by visiting their graves.

That is now changing as the government urges cremation to save space in the densely populated country. But the concept of cremation has taken another turn, as some South Koreans are now turning ashes into beads.

Instead of taking the urn filled with the ashes of his wife to a mausoleum or a burial site, Mr Kim Gong-suk wants to turn her ashes into beads first. That is why he came to Bonhyang, an ashes-to-beads company located in Icheon, south of Seoul.

At Bonhyang, the ashes are thoroughly cleaned. They are then ground into a fine powder, before being heated at ultrahigh temperatures. The process melts the ashes until they are crystallised into beads.On average, the ashes of one body will produce up to 5 cups of beads depending on bone density.
The whole process takes about 90 minutes and costs about US$1,200 (S$1,500).

“If they are kept in the mausoleum in the form of ashes, there are concerns they can rot. But if they are kept as beads they can be preserved permanently,” explained Mr Kim when asked why he chose this rather unconventional option.

That is also one of the reasons Bonhyang founder and owner Mr Bae Jae-yul started the business. He set up Bonhyang with his wife of 13 years and has seen the business grow steadily. These beads cannot become mouldy, and insects cannot grow in them. You can keep your loved ones in a beautiful and clean state forever and beside you,” said Mr Bae.

Mr Bae has served more than 1,000 customers so far and he says religion is not a deterrent. “There are churches that are using our method now. They lease our machines. And the church turns all ashes into beads and keeps them at its mausoleum,” said Mr Bae.

For the most part, his customers keep the beads at mausoleums. But many chose to keep them at home. “They don't look disgusting. It feels good to see them when I open my eyes in the morning or go to bed. I admit I wasn't sure at first if this was a good idea. But when I saw the beads I was impressed. They are beautiful, clean and there's no smell,” said Mr Han Kwi-chol. He added that it is comforting to see his mother in this form - like precious stones - rather than ashes.

Burial methods have changed over the years. In recent years, about seven out of 10 are cremated. Beads are now another option - which might not be acceptable for everyone yet. However, change happens fast in South Korea - it has only been 10 years since South Koreans were first introduced to cremation.  

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