Photographers' Blog

Coffin therapy

December 17, 2012

By Sheng Li

After many days trying to set-up an interview at the Ruoshui Mental Health Clinic, which resides within a commercial apartment building in Shenyang, China, I finally received a call from the owner on December 12 who granted me the access and opportunity to photograph one of their “death experience therapy” patients.

An hour later, I found myself in the so-called “death experience room”, a 10-square-metre room with nothing but a coffin on the floor. On the wall there was a poster of Jesus holding a newborn baby illuminated with gloomy blue lights. My first impression? Quite intimidating.

According to 50-year-old therapist Mr. Tang Yulong, the clinic opened in 2009 and since then there have been more than a thousand people who have done the death experience therapy. The therapy costs 2000 yuan ($320) and usually lasts 4 to 5 hours, during the duration of which the patient is required to lie in a coffin while his/her relatives read “epitaphs” or give speeches nearby. The patient also needs to write down his/her feelings and share with therapists and family. Mr. Tang said that many of them burst into tears when they are “resurrected.” He believes it is an extreme but efficient method to make people realize the value of their lives.

Then I met 42-year-old Mr. Yang, who had booked his therapy appointment for that day. During the psychological preparation talk, I learned that Yang had lost his mother when he was only 11 months old. Lacking maternal love and constantly being insecure in his childhood made him unable to cope with the pressure of work and daily life, and thus he became profoundly pessimistic.

With his wife’s accompaniment, he followed the therapist’s instructions and got in the coffin while the funeral music began. Maybe it was the music – I found myself completely absorbed in the atmosphere, and felt somewhat sad during the entire process. Mr. Yang told me later that for a few seconds he really felt as if he were dead inside the coffin, and his desire to keep on living became stronger. And when he heard his wife reading a letter to him, he cried. He said that it was so strange that when he was “dead,” he actually felt closer to his wife and loved ones.

As a photographer, I could only imagine what it would be like lying inside the coffin and being “dead.” But I have to admit, even as a witness, I felt easier coming out of that gloomy room, as if some of the pressure of my own was somehow being lifted from me.

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