VR Near-Death Simulation and Memento Mori Rituals (New York City, September 2023)

On the afternoon of September 17th, nine participants gathered in the Morbid Anatomy Library in Brooklyn, NYC to undertake an experiment in ritual space and time, guided by artists Bridget Carey, Tony Wolf and Virgil Wong.

The main gates of Green-Wood Cemetery, just a few minutes’ walk from the Morbid Anatomy Library. Note the large communal nest atop the central spire, home to a noisy flock of monk parrots.

Upon arriving at the Library, participants were ushered to a table where their hands were ceremonially washed.

We then gathered before a vanitas altar; a shrine, not to a deity nor a person, but to the idea of transience in the vita activa (life of activity), vita voluptuosa (life of sensual pleasure) and vita contemplativa (life of the mind). Tony Wolf spoke of the duende, represented by the skull bearing the floral crown and symbolizing the power of death to inspire meaning in life.

Each of us in turn took up the duende marotte and spoke of our reasons for taking part in the ritual, represented by a small object we had brought. As we finished speaking, we passed the marotte to the next person and then placed our talisman upon the shrine.

We then stood and each participant was invited to offer a statement about life that was true for them, physicalizing the statement by moving towards the vanitas shrine. If others in the group agreed, then they also moved towards the shrine; if they disagreed, they moved away; if they were undecided, or if this was information that they did not wish to reveal about themselves, they remained in the central, liminal space.

We repeated this procedure with statements about death.

Next we gathered in a tight circle and undertook an evolved version of the venerable slumber party ritual, “light as a feather, stiff as a board”. As the group maintained a humming chorus, those who wished stood in the center of the circle, assumed a coffin pose and allowed themselves to be supported by the group, who raised them high into the air.

The group then very slowly and gently lowered them to a mat on the floor.

We then shifted gears into Virgil Wong’s virtual reality near-death experience simulation. Each participant donned a VR headset and lay upon a yoga mat, experiencing a sophisticated, 360-degree audio-visual simulation based on the reports of people who have recalled near-death events.

The VR near-death experience lasted 15 minutes.

During the denouement, Bridget Carey invited participants to record their feelings about and responses to the ritual experience via art and writing.

As the participants gathered themselves to leave, they were reminded to retrieve their object from the shrine or invited to leave it there if they wished.

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