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We tried a virtual reality death experience and this is what we learned

Young woman using a virtual reality headset with conceptual network lines; Shutterstock ID 552221818
Photograph: Shutterstock

It all starts with a sip of herbal green tea served in a ceramic cup made from the ashy remains of 200 unnamed humans. 

We’re all going to die eventually, right? But what if you could experience what death might feel like without actually putting your life in danger? As part of the week-long Reimagine End of Life conference—a series of events focused on death and the celebration of life—the Second Chance exhibit lets you experience what death might be like through a VR headset. We signed right up. 

After our group of eight drank the tea, we walked through a hanging black sheet and entered a dimly lit room lined with ten twin-sized black mattresses. Each of us took a seat and put on the thickly padded headphones and V.R. headset provided on the bed. Then, in unison, everyone in the group “died," an experience that involved seeing stellar digital oceans, hearing a violin chorus and entering into a lukewarm meditation to reflect on the life we had just left behind.

Next we were awoken, and “transitioned,” one at a time, into our next out-of-body phase. This basically meant walking into the next room, where a dancer, strung with LED lights, undulated his body beneath a translucent, off-white sheet. A similarly strange experience awaited us in the chamber after that, where we were encouraged by two other performance artists to run our fingers through the silken tips hanging from the ceiling, touch the floor-mounted cotton ball clouds and balance battery-powered candles atop our heads. Ultimately, it was an ode to the tactile senses—the ones we used gto possess, prior to "passing."

The next forty-five minutes were focused on self-reflection, each activity shining a spotlight on what we could have, should have, and would have done better if we were given a "second chance" at life. Intimate conversations with the strangers in our group were mediated by our exhibit guide, and before we could enter the real world again, our "eulogies" were read to us by members of the group. (Prior to entering the exhibit, we were told to fill out a form that combed through various aspects of our lives without explanation as to what they would be used for.) It was eerie to have our most intimate relationships and personal thoughts read by a person who was a complete stranger only an hour before.

“It makes you really not sweat the small things,” our partner said to us after we read her memoriam. We couldn’t agree more.

Finally, we were all given a resurrecting elixir (water) that allowed us to re-enter the living world.

As we ventured back toward our starting point to slip on our shoes and grab our bags, we couldn’t help but feel the weight of what we just experienced. Facing our own mortality made us far more appreciative of the life we have left to live. But it was also comforting; death was portrayed as something not to be feared, but welcomed when the time comes.

Now the only question that remains is: Do we want to be cremated and turned into a ceramic for sipping? TBD.