Getting Used to the Idea of Dying

Death at the door in a painting; the author peeking out to se who is there
“Uninvited Guest,” Menzel, author’s interpretation

I think we get used to things and eventually accept them, and who knows, maybe even appreciate ideas like dying, by doing them. Not just by thinking about them.

You’d think that would be a problem with dying, until you step back and see dying as a transition. Maybe a transition to something and maybe a transition to nothing — but we’ve all done transitions before. They can be difficult and sometimes frightening, especially in the anticipation. But if we think of any transition in life as practice for dying, it can help. This is the perspective of the ‘Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.’

Then there’s the every day rehearsal called, Sleep, which Macbeth called

the death of each day’s life

In Greek mythology, sleep and death aren’t just a lot alike — they’re twins. Hypnos (sleep) and Thanatos (death). How we approach sleep can be a stand-in for how we might approach death.

These are two ways we can do dying. There are others. We can do dying by engaging actively and with intention in anything that evokes death. Like walking in a cemetery, not listening to a podcast but listening instead to what is evoked in ourselves.

Or we can do dying by being with people who are actively dying, members of our own family, friends, or by serving as a local hospice volunteer.

Doing things involving death has built and strengthened my relationship with mortality. When we invest in relationships, we’re less anxious about them. I know from direct experience that it works that way with death, our longest term relationship.

“Morta,” Ruth Diaz, in Horizon Worlds

I see Virtual Reality as the perfect opportunity for simulating the events of death and bereavement, and developing our relationship with mortality gradually and carefully. We can create virtual experiences in a setting designed for learning, unlike the same experiences when they actually happen.

I have been practicing for two years, with friends and colleagues, learning how to design and host VR Dying events. Two years of weekly events — one on death, one on loss — for people to open up and let it out, and they have.

I never planned or even imagined any of this, but now I have launched a four-week program of VR Dying Experiences. It is more than a Meet-Up about topics not generally discussed. It is a sequence of designed experiences to help people get used to the idea of dying.

About two weeks ago, I wrote about what I was planning to do. This piece is a live update. Week One exceeded my expectations, but I am also making a major change.

Theory and Practice

I have been greatly influenced by Dr. David Merrill and his First Principles of Instruction, which is based on the idea that learning is facilitated when it is based on an authentic task or problem and that the learning process has at least four distinct aspects.

The topic of Session One, consistent with our gradual approach, was Other People Dying, not you. The task was to deliver a mini-Eulogy for someone who has died.

Activation means gaining attention, bringing the group together at the outset and explaining the design, providing a clear framework for the rest of the event.

The Demonstration was an only-in-VR immersion tour of how people have honored their dead in different times and different places all over the world. Drawing on the free public Google Streetview 360 image database, we were able to be fully immersed and feel present in a series of powerful places:

Mount of Olives, Jerusalem

Old Jewish Cemetery, Prague

Chinese Cemetery, Manila

Hanging Coffins, Philippines

Highgate Cemetery, London

Santa Cruz Cemetery, East Timor

Okunoin Cemetery, Japan

Daereungwon Mounds, South Korea

Grodno Cemetery, Belarus

Arlington National Cemetery, USA

Taj Mahal, Agra, India

Merry Cemetery, Romania

As we lingered in each location, I asked people to feel the emotions or the memories or the thoughts that came up. Whatever they are, just notice them, feel them, then let them go.

I maintained that these places were not for the dead but for the living. People who loved or respected people who died made these places happen. Why do you think they did it? What do you think they were hoping for?

The Application was a chance for the 26 people who attended to express themselves, in the form of a Tribute.

“Morta,” Ruth Diaz, in Horizon Worlds

The last cemetery on our tour was not a famous location, full of its specific place and power. It was Any Old Cemetery on a little hilly field with six or eight weathered and leaning-over gravestones. Nothing else around.

This virtual place didn’t radiate its own special energy — it let people project their feelings into it. We had a few pews at the back of the gathering area and a church stand at the front. Half the people who came delivered a Eulogy, which I scaffolded with prompts like, ‘… see if you can finish this sentence — she was the kind of person who …’ and ‘can you tell us a little story about that?’

We heard about uncles and sisters, grandparents and a pet dog. An annoying Priest. A best friend. Mom. Everyone was present in the experience, some were very emotional. No one left.

But when we had been in our VR Dying Experience as a group for over an hour, we were suddenly and unexpectedly joined by a female avatar who asked, ‘where am I?’ and when I replied that she had just joined a VR world set up to give a Eulogy for someone you have lost, she gave an amazed kind of yelp and said the only person she ever loved and who ever loved her just died. She was overwhelmed and almost paralyzed, she put on her VR headset without any plan and now here she was.

Her Eulogy was eight minutes of raw, beautiful, full-of-pain love. She did everything for her lover all the way to the end. When it was over, she called the hospice people and they came. Then she stumbled onto us. These things happen.

The Integration, or Reflection, phase is still on-going. We did not go directly from Eulogies to ending the event. We wound down a little. But I don’t feel we decompressed, much less reflected, sufficiently.

To really have an Integration phase, we need to leave the world linked to all the expression and emotion and conclude the session somewhere else. I will make sure to allow for that possibility in the next sessions.

Next Sessions

  1. Avatar Squares of Death! is set in TV Game Show World, with Xs and Os and a social atmosphere of light competition. The idea is to have fun immersed in death.
  2. Way To Go takes us to Memorial Worlds that are full of life and a Zen Garden world for a regrets ritual.
  3. The End helps us look at death face-to-face in its many forms. We take in the Heart Sutra and consider our options.

The Metaverse

My initial plan was to offer all four sessions at different time on two different social VR apps — AltspaceVR and Horizon Worlds. In addition, the group meditations that I already lead on both Metaverse locations would follow the general themes of the Sessions on Dying.

I did exactly that for the first week with, Other People Dying, and despite the deep differences between the apps, I found a way to make my design work. However, Horizon Worlds most rewards 3D modeling skills at this time, and that is not my forte. The app is also closed to external digital media, which is my forte. It’s just too hard for me so I am curtailing the Horizon Worlds track. We will return for the final week.

No matter how long I continue to evolve and grow as a mortality experience designer, I will never forget the way death led someone right into a made-up world that she needed in that moment more than all the rest of us put together.

The rest of us were there for VR simulation of something that wasn’t happening. She was there because what was happening drew her to a VR simulation.

image by David Denton

I write about VR and other topics I have no standing to write about on Medium and Substack.

I have a black belt in learning and I’ve been meditating for so long you’d think I’d be enlightened but I’m not.

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Learning Technologist focusing on VR, Video, and Mortality … producer of Less Than One Minute and 360 degree videos

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Tom Nickel

Tom Nickel

Learning Technologist focusing on VR, Video, and Mortality … producer of Less Than One Minute and 360 degree videos

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