As you lie in your coffin, surprised at just how much being dead feels like being alive, a hooded, demonic figure appears above you and waves. Before you have time to reciprocate, everything goes black as the demon and its minions close the coffin’s lid. You are now immersed in infinite blackness. This is when the claustrophobia sets in. You pound your fists against the lid, begging to be let out — there must be a mistake — but alas, all your pleas are for naught.
You feel your coffin lurch forward as the pallbearers bring you to your final resting place. You desperately rake your mind, trying to recall if you requested burial or cremation. Your pallbearers set you down just as you realize you opted for the latter. Before you have time to panic, bright light filters through the cracks in the lid, the loud crack of wood is deafening as flames engulf your coffin. The air all around you becomes stifling, getting hotter by the second. And finally everything goes dark. The silence is total.
You didn’t realize you were holding your breath, and exhale loudly. If this was death, it certainly wasn’t as bad as everyone made it out to be. As you begin to consider how you’re going to whittle away eternity, you can feel yourself being moved again. Eventually, the coffin lid is removed, and you are blinded by light. You are pulled from the coffin and find yourself in a white padded room — not a room, but a uterus. You’ve been reborn, and it’s time to give life a second shot. You proceed to the well-marked exit with a smile on your face and a renewed zest for life.
For hundreds of visitors to The Window of the World amusement park in Shenzhen, China, this experience is all too familiar. Chinese nationals and international tourists lined up last year to pay USD 40 each for a crack at Samadhi, the 4D death simulator that opened here for Halloween, before moving to Shanghai. Ding Rui and Huang Wei-ping, the owners of a hospice service, created Samadhi — the name connotes a meditative state attained by practitioners of Buddhism or Hinduism — as a way to give visitors an authentic experience of dying and being cremated.
“We lack understanding of death and the fear can become so overwhelming.”
As macabre as it sounds, Samadhi is filling an increasing demand for ‘death simulators’ in Asia. Some practitioners claim the burgeoning industry is helping to roll back the high rates of suicide in many Asian countries, a trend spurred by social pressures, work-life imbalance, and a cultural emphasis on family honor.
Rui says he got the idea after experiencing an existential crisis following the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which killed over 80,000 people and displaced nearly 5 million others. He decided to launch a death simulator after spending time volunteering in a hospice and realizing that “we lack understanding of death and the fear can become so overwhelming,” he told CNN.
By allowing his ‘patients’ to experience death in life, Rui says he hoped that when the time for the real thing finally came, those who had experienced Samadhi could face the end fearlessly. Evidently Rui’s perception that people are desperately seeking ways to cope with their impending demise was not far off the mark: he managed to raise USD 65,000 for the Samadhi project on the Chinese crowd-funding site Jue.so in just three months.
“There aren’t any model answers in life and death education, unlike those courses that teach you to be rich and successful,” co-owner Wei-ping told CNN. “China made me rich, but it didn’t teach me how to live a rich life. I was lost.
”Samadhi is modeled on the South Korean Coffin Academy, started in 2010 by Jung Joon as a corporate self-help seminar in which participants engage in a number of morbid activities such as writing their own epitaphs and last letters to loved ones, or participating a mock-burial, replete with coffins and the traditional yellow robe for the deceased.
Such practices are relatively common among European and U.S. practitioners of existential psychotherapy, a type of therapeutic practice that focuses on what philosopher Paul Tillich called “ultimate concerns”: life, death, finitude, freedom, and responsibility.
But only in South Korea are corporate giants like Samsung shelling out USD 25 per person to put hundreds of their personnel through these seminars. Death simulators like the Coffin Academy promise to help participants appreciate life, in the hope it will keep people from cutting it short.
Still, some mental health experts are skeptical that death simulators can effectively stave off suicide.
“It’s not a question of these simulators doing harm or good. I don’t think they’re doing anything at all, frankly,” says Mark Kaplan, a professor of social welfare at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has spent 20 years researching suicide.
There’s no available data that points to the success rates of death simulators in preventing suicide. What is certain is that such services are gaining in popularity. At a clinic called Lingxin that recently opened in Shanghai, customers can pay up to USD 4,000 for a day-long session, and services similar to the Coffin Academy are also offered in Taiwan.
Kaplan says these individualized solutions to Asia’s rising suicide rates fail to address the systemic, cultural factors that lead people to want to kill themselves in the first place.
“We would like to find a magic bullet, and these simulators might be a panacea — something that’s being offered in lieu of the more integral solutions that a problem like this warrants,” he says. “Korea has become an economic powerhouse just in the last 50 years. But the question is, at what price?”