South Koreans face lonely deaths as Confucian traditions fade

Mon Jan 21, 2013 6:28am EST
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By Christine Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) - When South Korean widow Yoon Sook-hee, 62, died after a bout of pneumonia in mid-January, she joined a growing number of old people in this Asian country who die alone and was cremated only thanks to the charity of people who never knew her.

Once a country where filial duty and a strong Confucian tradition saw parents revered, modern day South Korea, with a population of 50 million, has grown economically richer, but family ties have fragmented. Nowadays 1.2 million elderly South Koreans, just over 20 percent of the elderly population, live - and increasingly die - alone.

Yoon's former husband, whom she divorced 40 years ago, relinquished responsibility after being contacted by the hospital and told of her death. Her only son was unreachable as he had long broken off all contact with his parents.

"There are many elderly people who are incredibly depressed because they don't have a place to put their bodies after they die," said Kang Bong-hee, representative of a federation of funeral directors that manages funerals free of charge for those who are unable to afford their own.

"They collect what little money they have and they come and ask us what to do (with their bodies) after they die."

Kang was one of the volunteers who put together a makeshift funeral for Yoon, with most of the funds coming out of his own pocket.

South Korea is ageing at the fastest pace of all industrial nations, with the proportion of elderly rising to 11.8 percent of the population in 2012, up from 7.2 percent in 2002 and just 3.8 percent in 1980.

A report from the Welfare Ministry published in May last year predicted the ratio would grow to 15.7 percent in 2020 and to 24.3 percent in 2030, thanks to a declining birthrate that has dropped from six per woman of childbearing age to just one.   Continued...

Kong Kyung-soon, 73, who lives alone, does kitchen work in a space that consists of a toilet, bathroom and kitchenette in her tiny rented apartment that has two square meters of living space in Seocho-gu, adjacent to the posh Gangnam suburb, in Seoul January 16, 2013. REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won