Funeral Home Leads People to Jesus in Seoul
Sahmyook Medical Center baptizes more than 140 people a year.
By Andrew McChesney
South Korean physician Sungsik Ha didn’t believe in God, even though he had worked for three decades at the Seventh-day Adventist hospital in Seoul.
Then one of his in-laws died, and Ha listened to a hospital chaplain lead the funeral service in the hospital’s gleaming marble funeral home. He was deeply moved to hear the chaplain speak about the promise of Jesus’ second coming and the hope of resurrection.
A short time later Ha’s other in-law died, and he again attended a chaplain-led funeral. His heart was touched again by the message of hope. Ha began to read the Bible and, several months later, was baptized into the Adventist Church.
“I worked my whole life as a medical doctor here,” Ha, a stocky man with a kind smile, said in an interview at the Sahmyook Medical Center-Seoul Adventist Hospital, where he now serves as chief medical officer. “The hospital had kind of an irresistible attraction on me,” he said. “I gradually became an Adventist.”
Serving as Jesus’ healing hands—and introducing people to the Savior—has been the mission of the Sahmyook Medical Center, or SYMC, since its origins as a simple cottage clinic established by the first Adventist medical missionary to Korea, Dr. Riley Russell, in 1908.
Today the 426-bed general hospital has a staff of more than 800 people who treat a half million patients a year. The hospital also operates a 120-bed nursing home and the funeral home, a luxurious, two-story facility with private apartments where families stay for three days at a time as they mourn the loss of loved ones. Many families also hear an encouraging message of hope from a hospital chaplain.
To understand how the funeral home works requires an understanding of the Korean National Health Insurance System, which was created in the 1970s. Koreans initially expressed reluctance to subscribe to the insurance plan, prompting the government to set the price at a very low level as it urged people to join. Now nearly every Korean is covered by the insurance plan.
The insurance plan may remain inexpensive, but medical reimbursements from the plan are also small, said Ji Yoon Lee, the Adventist hospital’s associate director of planning. So the authorities gave permits to hospitals to operate funeral homes. Koreans tend to spend a lot of money on funeral services, making the funeral home business highly profitable, Lee said. The Adventist hospital is no exception. “It is the funds from the funeral home that keep the consolidated bottom line profitable,” Lee said.
The funeral home conducts 20 to 30 funerals a week, with Adventists accounting for 14 percent of the services. Families may invite their own cleric to conduct the funeral, but the hospital’s two ordained Adventist pastors and a junior pastor are also available.
“Most of them have no hope after the death of a loved one,” said Yung Han Yoon, the hospital’s chief chaplain. “I share a biblical message of hope as they face death. This is new to them.”
After the funeral, the hospital connects the family with the nearest Adventist church. Among the people who have been baptized through the work of the funeral home is a popular Korean movie actor whose heart was touched by his brother’s funeral, Yoon said. The man also was baptized shortly before his death.
The hospital also has a vibrant chaplaincy service consisting of the three pastors and a full-time deaconess. The four lead more than 140 people to baptism every year, Lee said. In 2014, when Dr. Ha was baptized, the hospital baptized 174 people.