Burial plots in the densely populated regions of South Korea become scarcer and scarcer by the day. The limited space available to bury the dead in Korea has led to a drastic, nationwide increase in cremation. And another, more unique trend has popped up in response, too: cremation beads.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What Are Death Beads?
- How Did Cremation Beads Come About in South Korea?
- What’s the Process for Making Cremation Beads?
- Cremation Bead Criticism and Praise
A handful of niche businesses in South Korea specialize in turning human cremains into sparkling, gem-like beads. But why would you choose such a service, and how do they do it?
What Are Death Beads?
Cremation beads—sometimes known as “death beads”—are a relatively new type of cremation art. They’re a way to keep a loved one close, even after they’ve passed away.
For South Koreans who want more than simply ashes in an urn, cremation beads can be a perfect choice.
A simple comparison is to consider the rise in popularity of memorial diamonds in North America. Today, it's common to use a provider like Eterneva to transform a loved one's ashes or hair into a gorgeous, unique memorial diamond. Other companies like Parting Stone create beautiful, handheld cremation stones out of the ashes to help the grieving keep the deceased close by.
How Did Cremation Beads Come About in South Korea?
Cremation beads aren’t an ancient practice in South Korea. In fact, the art form is only about a decade old.
So how did niche businesses start creating death beads? And why did family members start turning their loved ones’ ashes into art?
Running out of space
One of the key factors that brought cremation beads to life is South Korea’s population. The country is one of the most densely populated in the world with approximately 1,302 people per square mile. The population density of Seoul, South Korea is nearly twice that of New York City.
And high population density amongst the living translates to high population density amongst the dead. In 2018, an average of 582 people out of every 10,000 died each year. In a city center like Seoul, which boasts a population of over 51 million, that’s over 8.6 million deaths per year.
It’s easy to see how cemeteries in South Korea would struggle to keep up. And that’s why the number of people who chose cremation over burial rose from 20.5% to 82.7% over the course of just one generation.
The government of South Korea has even campaigned for cremation. They imposed laws that bodies buried after the year 2000 must be removed after 60 years.
So why not just place the cremains in a decorative urn? Many South Koreans don’t see keeping ashes in an urn, or scattering the ashes in nature, as an adequate form of honoring the dead.
The tradition of honoring the departed in South Korea stems from the region’s Confucian history. Korean funerals are deeply rooted in Confucianism, even though few South Koreans identify as Confucian today. Many South Koreans believe that the deceased go from this life on to an afterlife. And from the afterlife, the soul of the deceased can influence the life of the living.
It’s the living family members’ responsibility to adequately honor the departed and ensure the dead doesn’t become a wandering ghost. The traditional way of doing this is with a burial.
But with limited space for burial, and significant influence from western culture, South Koreans are putting less and less value on the traditional burial. This frees them up to choose cremation, but most still desire a meaningful way to honor the deceased. For some South Koreans, cremation beads fill that niche.
With innovative ideas like cremation beads, South Korea is joining many other countries in prioritizing environmental wellbeing.
Dedicating even more land to cemeteries doesn’t appeal to many South Koreans, who would prefer to maintain their country’s environment as much as possible. And burying bodies in the earth has started to raise its own set of environmental questions.
Burying cremains might take up less space, and scattering the ashes might be more compatible with the environment. But neither one is the perfect fit for many South Koreans, who want a way to continuously honor their loved ones.
Some businesses have created ways to plant the ashes, which is touted as an environmentally friendly option. Like cremation beads, a tree planted with a loved one’s ashes in the soil creates a lasting monument to the deceased. And many countries have jumped on the plantable ashes train.
But for other South Koreans, having an urn or glass container filled with a loved one’s sparkling cremation beads is the preferred method of honoring the deceased. The beads provide a physical presence where family members can remember the dead and perform ceremonies like the Jesa ritual.
Another reason people might choose cremation beads is that they stay “fresh” and “don’t rot.” Cremation bead purveyors have reportedly stated that normal cremains can “go off” and begin to smell bad. This statement might appeal to many South Koreans who want to keep their loved ones’ remains safe and clean.
However, crematoriums strictly deny that cremains might mold or begin to acquire a smell over time, and the bead-makers’ claim isn’t backed by evidence.
What’s the Process for Making Cremation Beads?
Some cremation jewelry and art are relatively simple to make: just create a tiny, wearable urn, and place the ashes inside. But making jewelry or art out of cremains is a different story.
Only a small handful of artisans create cremation beads, and each has its own proprietary formula and process. But here’s the general process of creating cremation beads.
Processing the cremains
The first step is, of course, cremating the body and processing the cremains. After cremation, the crematory usually processes any remaining bone fragments that weren’t broken down in the heat. They do this either by hand or by passing the fragments through a special machine that crushes them.
This process creates a uniform, pale grey to dark grey powder. The ashes are usually similar in appearance and texture to sand.
Once the bead-maker receives the ashes, they’ll make sure the powder is of the perfect consistency to work with. They’ll want to avoid having larger pieces that will make the beads appear inconsistent or imperfect.
Adding minerals (or not)
There’s some debate between cremation bead companies about adding minerals to the cremains before creating the beads.
Some bead-makers insist that adding minerals to the mix helps give the beads a better appearance. It makes them shinier and more glass-like, and it helps the process go more quickly, too.
(Although there’s no mention of which minerals the bead-makers are referring to, they likely add in a type of silicon. Sand is made mostly of silicon dioxide, and you can melt sand to turn it into glass.)
But others in the industry believe it's best to leave the ashes undiluted. Keeping the mixture ashes-only makes the final product purer, which might appeal more to grieving family members.
Applying ultrahigh temps
Next, the bead-makers use ultra-high temperatures to crystalize the ashes into glass-like beads. Cremation bead-makers keep their processes close to the chest, but it’s likely similar to creating cremation glass.
To make cremation glass, an artisan uses temperatures in excess of 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. This temperature is even higher than the molten-hot temps it takes to cremate the body in the first place.
The high temperature serves to burn off carbon from the ashes, changing the color from grey to bright white.
Storing the gems
Even though they’re called “cremation beads,” the final product isn’t a piece of jewelry. The “beads” are actually Buddhist-style beads: small, rounded gems, which you can store in a decorative container.
The cremation beads are usually bluish-green, but they can also be pinkish in color. This depends on the artisan’s process and whether or not they added any minerals to the mix. The shape of the beads reportedly depends on the mineral mix, as well. More minerals added may result in shinier, rounder “beads.”
Most people who choose cremation beads store the gems in a small glass chest or another container that makes the beads visible. The container can be placed on an altar or just kept in a place of honor at home.
Cremation Bead Criticism and Praise
Today, families of all backgrounds and cultures are looking for unique ways to honor their loved ones. In the United States, more families are using services like Foreverence to make custom urns to reflect their loved one's passions and interests. The same is true for memorial jewelry, artwork, and mementos.
However, not everyone in South Korea is a fan of the new cremation bead trend. Bead-makers don’t need a special government license to get started in the industry, and they’ve so far been secretive about business details.
Some critics believe the businesses are only in it for the profits, and that they aren’t concerned with the soul of the departed. Many still believe that the best way you can honor the departed is to let them return to nature through burial or even the scattering of ashes.
But for others, cremation beads provide an ideal way to honor the deceased and a perfect middle ground between burial and cremation alone.
- Kim, Hyung-Jin. “New way to mourn in South Korea: Cremated remains become gemlike beads.” Seattle Times. 16 November 2011. https://www.seattletimes.com/nation-world/new-way-to-mourn-in-south-korea-cremated-remains-become-gemlike-beads/
- “South Korea Population 2020 (Live).” World Population Review. https://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/south-korea-population/
- “More than 80 percent of South Koreans choose cremation as views on death change.” The Straits Times. 17 March 2018. https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/east-asia/more-than-80-per-cent-of-south-koreans-choose-cremation-as-views-on-death-change