Death cafe attendees lie in closed coffins to contemplate their lives.
  • Death cafes are popping up across South Korea as a way to help people reassess their lives.
  • At the cafes, visitors attend a funeral ceremony, lie in closed coffins, and give their own eulogies.
  • South Korea has the highest suicide rate among developed countries and the third longest average workday worldwide.
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"We're here for the funeral," Ravi Patel said as he walked into a door marked "death cafe" with his friend Matt Pohlson. "Our funeral."

The Korean cafe was just one stop on "Ravi Patel's Pursuit of Happiness" (now streaming on HBO Max), the actor's globe-trotting journey to learn how different countries treat universal challenges such as parenting and retirement. 

He visited South Korea with Pohlson, a close friend and fellow entrepreneur, to find out how the country is dealing with an epidemic of workaholism. They learned that workplaces sometimes send overextended employees to an unorthodox sort of company retreat: death cafes, where visitors can attend their own mock funerals.

While certain elements of the death cafe experience — like donning traditional funeral garb and lying in a closed coffin — may feel extreme, the cafes are designed to spark self-reflection.

"It's wild, but the whole point of it is to remind you of purpose, of what matters of life, and how to hopefully focus on the things that you'd be grateful for," Patel told Insider.

"Going to a funeral teaches you how to live your life"

In South Korea, where the workweek is capped at a whopping 52 hours and the suicide rate is higher than that of any other developed country, people are visiting these cafes to reasses their work-life priorities before it's too late.

The whole funeral experience forces attendees to imagine their time is limited. Upon arrival, visitors get their photos taken for funeral pamphlets and write their "last words" they'd have inscribed on their tombstones.

At the death cafe, visitors get their pictures taken before their funeral.

Before the ceremony, the group gathered in a room where they were encouraged to have one last "really good laugh" before their impending deaths. The moment of levity was cut short, however, when a man in a black robe took them into a room filled with rows of identical wooden coffins.

"Going to a funeral teaches you how to live your life," the funeral leader said in a voice-over as the group filed in.

Sat in front of their funeral photos and memorial candles, the participants were asked to consider how they might live their lives differently if they only had six months left.

"Are you sure you have no regrets in life?" asked the funeral leader. "And we also want to ask ourselves, why are we living so hard?"

For Patel, writing his own eulogy offered an opportunity to self-reflect

With some big questions to consider, the funeral attendees climbed into their coffins, which were left closed for 15 minutes, Patel said. 

When they emerged, the participants were instructed to write their "last letters" to their loved ones and read them out loud to the group as eulogies

Patel's "last letter" wasn't the first eulogy he's written for himself. He told Insider he updates his own eulogy every few years as a way to reevaluate his life plan — maybe not as drastic as a mock funeral, but he said it provides an opportunity for reflection.

"When you write your eulogy, it really crystallizes the most important things in life," Patel said. "You realize that it's not about anything but the people you love and how you advance their lives."

Work-life balance and burnout are gaining global recognition for impact on health

South Korea's workaholism and death cafes illustrate a microcosm of the worldwide effort to manage workplace stress.

The World Health Organisation added burnout, defined as an occupational phenomenon resulting from chronic workplace stress, to the International Classification of Diseases in 2019. The syndrome is characterized by feelings of exhaustion, negativity towards one's job, and decreased productivity at work.

Even pre-burnout, poor work-life balance can take a toll on physical and mental health, studies have shown.

As many people are working from home during the coronavirus pandemic, some are working extra hours and others, like Patel, have taken the opportunity to reprioritize.

"The pandemic has forced me into prioritizing life over work," Patel said. "I now make my work schedule work around my life, as opposed the other way around."

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