Asia has a suicide problem. Can make-believe help?
Spoiler alert: one day you are going to die.
For most people, this death hovers on the horizon of our futures—the time, place, and cause unknown. The uncertainty surrounding the end of ends inevitably raises a host of uncomfortable, anxiety-inducing questions like: "Will I be ready when it happens?", "Is it going to hurt?", or, depending on your world outlook, "What comes after?"
There are still no answers, but now a handful of entrepreneurs in Asia are experimenting with simulators to help their customers better appreciate life by making them feel like they're dead, ushering in an age of simulated death which may at last provide some answers to these perennial questions.
Huange Weiping and Ding Rui of Shanghai, the Chinese co-founders of an oncology oriented hospice service called Hand in Hand, recently launched a 4D death simulator in which participants can experience what it's like to get cremated and reborn in a uterus.
Somewhere between a therapy session and an amusement park ride, the game—called Samadhi—is clearly meeting a large demand in the Asian marketplace, despite its macabre themes. The project managed to raise over $65,000 in three months through a crowdfunding campaign on Jue.so, China's Kickstarter equivalent.
Now tucked away in a corner of the Window of the World amusement park in Shenzhen, China, the Samadhi opened in September of 2014 as a game in which players pay $40 to compete in a series of challenges in which everyone is trying to avoid the ultimate penalty—death. Players who "die" in the game (and in the end, all the players die) are placed in a coffin, then carried to a large furnace via conveyor belt. The coffin is heated to 40 C (105 F), and a combination of hot air and light produce what its creators described to CNN as an "authentic experience of burning."
After the cremation, the players see a womb projected on the ceiling and hear a heartbeat. Soon, they see a bright light which they must crawl toward so that they might emerge in a are white, padded area, which is supposed to represent their rebirth.
While the idea of actively seeking out such an attraction sounds too perverse to be true, the idea of faking our own death has tantalized human imaginations for centuries: Shakespeare wrote about it, and so did Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain, Thomas Hardy, and a whole host of others. Outside of fiction, dozens of people have faked their own deaths, although normally for less than admirable reasons. The creators of Samadhi are looking to change this by turning fake deaths from a tool for tax and marriage evasions into an innovative new method for saving lives and improving mental health.
The coffin is heated to 105 degrees Fahrenheit, with hot air and light producing what its creators described as an "authentic experience of burning"
The seeds of the Samadhi can be found in an analog precursor called the "Coffin Academy" which began in South Korea a little over five years ago. Founded by Jung Joon, the goal of the Academy was to help people approach death and dying in a responsible manner, exploring both the physical and social aspects of dying in order to help his customers better appreciate living while they were still around to enjoy it.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Joon also claimed that his seminar was helping to combat suicide in Korea, which has the highest suicide rate in the world.
"Korea has a problem: its suicide rates are off the charts," said Mark Kaplan, a professor of social welfare at UCLA who has spent over two decades studying suicide and prevention. "Suicide is a reflection of the conditions of society as a whole and Korea is a country that's desperate to address their problem of suicide mortality."
It is this desperation to address this deep seated social problem that Kaplan believes accounts for why companies pay $25 a head to have Joon host his morbid self-help seminars at various South Korean corporate functions. Samsung required 900 of its employees to undergo one of the Academy's sessions, for example.
During the four-hour seminar, participants write out their own epitaphs, compose last letters to their loved ones, and are placed in a closed coffin for 10 minutes, among other activities.
The letter writing is supposed to help the participants empathize with those who remain alive to deal with the loss of a loved one, the epitaph to help them realize the meaning they have in life, and the coffin is supposed to reinforce the notion that the infinite blackness of death might not be such a sweet relief after all—although there have been fears that such simulations might have the exact opposite effect.
"[These simulators] might just push people over the edge," Kaplan told me, fearing that the simulations might make people more likely to come to terms with death than with life. But Kaplan is not just skeptical about the possible negative repercussions of the program. Rather he doubts that it will have any effect on the rate of suicide whatsoever. "I see nothing out there that gives me any type of confidence in these types of a programs. It seems like a panacea for a problem that many Asian countries have [with suicide], particularly Korea."
The Samadhi 4D death simulator which just opened up in China operates along similar lines, albeit with slightly different prerogatives. Recent studies have suggested that the South Korean rate far outpaces its Chinese counterpart, as the latter's suicide rate has dropped from one of the highest in the world to one of the lowest in the last few years. Thus the 4D death simulator in China is less about helping people find reasons to live than simply providing a way for people to get the experience of being cremated and hopefully becoming more comfortable with their own mortality.
While it would be easy to dismiss the Samadhi as little more than a kitschy theme park attraction, according to its creators it was the result of both existential angst and a hearty amount of research. Rui and Weiping co-founded Hand in Hand for cancer patients. With death already weighing heavily on his mind, Rui went on a quest to find the meaning of life in the aftermath of the 2008 earthquake in China.
Rui spent two years talking to spiritual gurus from different religions about death and the meaning of life, discussions which inevitably prompted him to begin developing Samadhi, in the hope that it will help people overcome their fears of death and dying. The next step was to visit an actual crematorium and get put in the incinerator (with the heaters off, of course), so that the Samadhi might be as close to the real thing as possible.
Having patients write their own epitaphs, eulogies, and farewell letters has long beena trend in some branches of psychology (such as existential therapy), although the appearance of the all-inclusive "death experience" like the Coffin Academy and Samadhi is somewhat new and it appears to be gaining popularity.
Another venue called Lingxin, located in Shanghai's Putuo District, began offering its own experiences last April, in which patients participate in a slightly more rigorous iteration of the Korean Coffin Academy.
The appearance of the all-inclusive "death experiences" is somewhat new and it appears to be gaining popularity
According to the Chinese newspaper the Global Times, at Lingxin, clients may pay upwards of $4,000 for treatments in which they walk through rooms where videos are projected on the walls, disembodied voices reminding their audience of the insignificance of material possessions. They'll also experience intense day-long meditation and counseling sessions, fake burials, and writing their own epitaphs.
According to Rui, Weiping, and Joon, the responses of their customers and patients generally seem to be positive. While the experiences themselves often manage to induce high levels of anxiety and grief, the rebirths which conclude each unveiling of the coffins are more than metaphorical. For Kaplan and other critics however, focusing on the individualized psychopathology of suicide neglects the larger problem, which is systemic in nature.
"Around the world, if you study the figures, psychopathology figures less prominently [in suicide] in non-Western cultures," said Kaplan. "I think we need to be cognizant of the fact that this is not simply a psychological problem, but a social and cultural problem."
The proliferation of death simulators in Asia may indicate the emergence of a burgeoning new area of research into mental health, in which simulated environments are used to cope with grief and suicidal thoughts, or may simply be an existential swindle—there has been no quantitative data released which measures the effectiveness of such "therapies," and it is unlikely that such measurements are even being taken. If such measurements are in fact being recorded, the companies aren't advertising them. (I was unable to reach the entrepreneurs for comment on this story.)
In spite of the criticism, it looks as though the death simulators are here to stay, at least for awhile. Although still relatively rudimentary, the increasing sophistication of virtual reality technologies and understanding about the neurological facets of death (which has reached a point where scientists are able to induce near death experiences in rats) may very well pave the way for death simulations that are virtually indistinguishable from the real deal, for better or worse.
In the meantime, one thing is for remains certain: Asia has a suicide problem, and it is high time this problem is addressed. Whether or not simulated cremation amusement park rides are the appropriate way to go about it is an open question.
Perfect Worlds is a series on Motherboard about simulations, imitations, and models. Follow along here.