Old Rituals, New Rules

Celebrating a Life, in VR

Tom Nickel
5 min readApr 5, 2023

We expected a new kind of funeral, put together in VR by our friend for his Dad.

What we didn’t expect was his Mom.

Her husband’s death was difficult in ways that made having any funeral at all difficult. Her son, a grown man in his 40s, has many friends in an Internet world she didn’t understand. He talked to her about Virtual Reality and described real people like they were part of his life.

Still seemed strange.

Just a few days before the Funeral in VR, her son thought now might be the time and sent her a VR headset that arrived the day of the event.

What the heck is she going to do with it?

Source: E-Bay

She is going to do nothing without receiving direct and immediate help — slow, patient, caring help — the only possible way forward. Like many people in their 70s, she would not have un-boxed and set-up a new piece of high-tech hardware on her own. Maybe she could have, but she wouldn’t have.

She didn’t have to.

One of her son’s friends is a tech support whisperer.

He helped her over the phone through all the stuff no one likes doing. Sometimes even slow, patient, caring help isn’t enough.

This time it was.

She downloaded what she needed to download, waited 30 seconds and found herself in a little forest with a bunch of talking dogs.

Dad loved dogs. Our friend asked us to come in dog avatars. Some people felt silly at first, for about three minutes. Then they didn’t.

There were opening remarks and a picture show of good times. Then a time for people to share their feelings, which were overflowing.

The host called on someone whose avatar name he didn’t recognize. The avatar was Mom but we didn’t know it until she started right in speaking about how young they were when they met.

Her first minutes in VR and she was talking about fifty years ago to her son’s friends as if it was yesterday — as if it was a completely natural thing to be doing.

It was unexpected and astonishing.

The host thanked her for being with us and sharing her wonderful memories. I will never forget it. I told her that. I was the host.

Other people spoke. Our friend’s Mom spoke some more. When we were done, our friend thanked everyone — everything that had happened was just what he’d hoped for .

Then he said, ‘Follow me!’

The more we just go through the motions, the less rituals touch us in the way we need them to. Ceremonies become more than ceremonial when we put the magic into them.

The healing, the bonding, the coming-of-age — none of it’s included in the package.

The traditions any culture offers to help deal with life are containers. We fill them with our own purpose and effort and belief, if we can. It’s not always easy because of the rules and instructions that are included in the package.

Funerals especially. There are dress codes, emotion standards, and stipulated procedures.

But, like everything else, Funerals, integral to the worldwide changes from early 2020, were also massively disrupted by those changes.

The codes loosened. We could break the rules, or make up new ones for Zoom Funerals.

Or VR Funerals. Celebrations of life after someone’s death, in virtual reality.

The Procession

Our friend lifted the coffin over his head and proceeded to lead us across the rolling virtual fields to a far corner, where he had dug a large hole in the ground, next to a pile of stones.

Closing words were spoken.

As he set the coffin in the hole, our friend welcomed us to help fill it in with the stones, which we could lift and carry and drop.

We didn’t know our friend’s Dad, but we did. We knew him through the imprint he made on his son, by the inferences we make from what we see about what we can’t see.

Everyone has a father and many have a father figure in their life. I have never known it to be an easy relationship for anyone and our friend’s grieving was complicated. Because of his openness, we knew all the emotions he faced and moved through slowly and with great effort.

By the time he created the Funeral, he was past acceptance and had reached appreciation. That’s why we all experienced a celebration.

Our tears inside the headset came from our joys with our own Dads and also our many missed opportunities for more.

VR has been a new Safe Go-To Place for many people during the pandemic and even if the viruses ever let up, I believe many more people will continue to find reasons to experience VR.

Funerals will be one of them. As a business that generates $20 billion year after year, pretty much guaranteed, disruption will continue to occur.

Ceremonies for the dead are our longest-running cultural tradition as a species. The rituals are behavioral medicine, things we do and have always done to restore and maintain the health of the community and the people who are part of it.

The rituals are being re-invented and re-designed for a new situation with new possibilities.

Funerals are social and the VR I’m talking about is social too. It’s not sitting alone somewhere playing games. It’s being present with other people no matter where they are in the world.

We are each other’s best medicine.

Our friend’s Mom joined the Procession and stayed until the event was over. She continued on afterward to a cozy VR tavern where a lot of people went to wind down.

I don’t know how she felt. But I know she’s a Mom and she could see how her son felt. Value we can’t measure. A lot of that in social VR.

Image by David Denton

Tom writes about new media technologies and other topics he has little if any standing to write about.

He holds a Black Belt in Learning and loves writing. More here.

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Tom Nickel

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