North Korean funerals becoming more commercialized

A cemetery in an agricultural region of North Korea. Image: Daily NK

North Korea’s funerals are becoming more commercialized, a sign of the development emerging in the country. Previously in North Korea, most funerals were conducted with the help of neighbors and without professional service providers, sources say.

“Only 3-4 years ago, inminban (a type of neighborhood watch) members and work colleagues would help families who lost relatives, so there were few worries about funeral costs,” said a Ryanggang Province-based source on July 26. “Everything from finding a burial site to conducting the funeral itself costs money.”

“There are also significant costs involved in feeding people who stay up all night to watch over the deceased during the three-day mourning period […] Some families make the food themselves but now there are more costs involved because many families prefer food from the local markets,” the source added.

Prior to the period of mass starvation that occurred in the mid-to-late 1990s, a death in the family would normally lead to a small severance payment, as well as food and alcohol from the government. After the famine was over, families were left with having to buy all items for their funeral needs from the local markets. Until recently, there had still been a custom of people helping each other to cover these costs. Now, however, this practice is gradually fading away.

“Families received help from others to conduct funerals up until the 2000s, but that’s not the case anymore,”a source in North Hamgyong Province said, adding that “now every step of the funeral process costs money.”

Both sources reported that the cost of a casket is around 150 RMB and the cost of a cart to carry the deceased goes for anywhere from 120, 150 to 200 RMB, depending on the distance.

The total cost can run upwards of 1,500 RMB if one counts the money doled out to neighbors who help during the mourning period. A one kilogram bag of rice in local markets costs 4,900 North Korean won, which means that funeral fees are worth about 400 kilograms of rice.

While North Korea’s funeral culture is becoming more commercialized, most funerals are conducted at homes meaning that it may take some time for North Korean funerals to become completely outsourced like in other countries.

While the mourning period is traditionally three days, it may sometimes be reduced to one or two days. North Koreans do not typically wear special clothes for funerals; men wear black armbands and women wear white ribbons. The deceased will sometimes be clothed in real or artificial silk (rayon), but this is not always the case, with regular fabric being common.

Cremation was common in the 1970s, but formal burials became the norm after the 1980s. By the late 1990s, however, cremation had become popular again. North Korea still has relatively little infrastructure to deal with cremations, with many families still preferring burials over cremations.