The age-old question of “what happens after death” is one that humanity has grappled with for millennia. Religions, philosophers, and thought leaders have put forward theories about the fate of every human being beyond life on earth. So far, no factual, science-based conclusion has provided a satisfactory answer.
Psychologists have come to understand that the fear of death – or the realization of mortality – is the main motivator of human action. Developments such as cloning and creating virtual worlds that were previously science fiction have become a reality, perhaps as another struggle to answer this question – or even defeat death.
Now, in the era of the metauniverse, humans are the architects of the new digital world and thus the new digital life. In the Web3 space, the metaverse has attracted a lot of attention from outside investment and increased participation from legacy companies. The Metaverse sector will have an estimated value of $5 trillion by 2030.
Many believe the Metaverse will change the fabric of social life.
This new genesis of digital living naturally raises the same timeless questions – with a twist. If life is reinvented in digital reality, will death be different too? Specifically, what happens after death in the metauniverse as humans and avatars?
What happens when we die digitally?
The existential question of what happens after death remains unanswered when it comes to the final or next destiny of our soul. However, cultures around the world have different ways of dealing with death ceremonies, the human experience of deciding what happens to our bodies after death.
As more and more people digitize their identities, create avatars in virtual worlds, and store digital assets, the question of what happens after death resurfaces.
The introduction of social media was one of the earlier cases where people had to deal with digital identities after death.
For example, on Facebook, a user’s profile is “remembered” as “a place where friends and family can gather and share memories after a person’s death.” It also serves as a security feature to prevent any future logins.
Metaverse, Facebook’s parent company, is actively developing the metaverse. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of the company, made an explanatory video for the Metaverse in October 2021.
Although the clip didn’t explicitly mention death, users started asking questions about death in the metaverse. Soon after, a dystopian meme appeared on social media with a quote attributed to Zuckerberg: “If you die in the metaverse, you die in real life.”
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) October 30, 2021
Nevertheless, the founders and CEOs of the metaverse platforms play with the idea of death as the digital reality evolves.
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Frank Wilder, co-founder of the metaverse platform Wilder World, told Cointelegraph that when we build sacred places in the metaverse and create new versions of avatars, the concept of “dying” is no longer limited to the death of the physical body:
“In this digital world, we have the opportunity to imagine new forms of life after death, such as preserving a digital consciousness of a person or creating a virtual memorial.”
Wilder said honoring “the sanctity of life is a delicate exploration” and people will inherit a variety of choices in how they would like to honor their lives.
Cemeteries in the sky
For Mariana Cabugueira, chief architect and urban planner of Wiami, the Wilder World’s first digital city, this “new dimension of reality” encourages a new approach to heritage preservation.
Take, for example, the concept of cemeteries. In her opinion, Metaverse cemeteries will feel less like graveyards and more like designated memorial sites with memory and soul storage capsules created by the owner for digital rest.
“These digital capsules show how we want to be remembered and honored, tell our story and convey warm soul feelings.”
While avatars do not age, the mind behind the avatar can replace the digital form and deserves to be locked up and celebrated, Cabugueira said, adding: “Memory capsule cemeteries will be places of closure of life, of ending our characters – the self we have departed from – or a stage of life, where we are no longer.”
In Wilder World, Cabugueira has a vision of the visual shape of these spaces. She said these memorials would be tall “like cathedrals”, with symbolism associated with sky and light.
“Remembrance is no longer just a burial, but a celebration of the evolution of life,” she said.
The ethics of digital life after death
Digital cemeteries are only part of what happens after digital death. The more pressing question is: what is happening to our digital assets and data?
Yat Siu, co-founder and executive chairman of Animoca Brands, believes we are still in the early stages of this discussion. He told Cointelegraph that those who think about these things do so more in terms “how custody of assets can be transferred to heirs instead of metaverse identity management”. siu said:
“In the metauniverse, your digital personality can still have influence and influence even if it is no longer supported by you. In fact, a digital person can become even more influential and therefore valuable after physical death.”
Marja Konttinen, marketing director of the Decentraland Foundation – the founding organization of the Decentraland metaverse – said that virtual worlds are often considered “a thing of the future”; however, they can also be a powerful tool as a window into the past.
Konttinen stressed that a digital twin that continues to live after the physical death of its users could raise ethical questions similar to those related to artificial intelligence and deep fakes.
“It certainly opens up the possibility of creating a permanent virtual mausoleum of our memories and experiences, perhaps in the form of an NPC [non-player character] who looks and talks like us, living forever in the metauniverse,” she said.
“Thanotechnology” and “dreams”
Death in the digital realm has combined new technologies with older sciences dealing with death and bereavement.
Cole Imperi is a thanatologist – a specialist in understanding death, dying, grief and mourning, derived from the Greek word for death, “thanatos” – and the founder of the School of American Thanatology. She told Cointelegraph that there is a sub-field in thanatology called “thanotechnology” that focuses on the intersection of her field and technology.
She told Cointelegraph that digital spaces could offer more ways to “seamlessly connect the dead with the living” that physical spaces don’t:
“The digital afterlife offers more opportunities to continue connecting with our departed loved ones and, I believe, also offers the greatest opportunity for progress in the way we commemorate and remember our loved ones.”
In 2009, Imperi even coined the term “dreams,” which refers to the digital remnants that people leave behind on the Internet after they die. Imperi is helping launch ThanaLab, which monitors “online commemoration patterns and changes related to a user’s death.”
She said that the digital death of users is becoming more and more common and it is natural to bring this aspect of our physical lives into the digital space.
Do we have answers?
The metaverse has been around for a long time. In 1992, American science-fiction writer Neal Stephenson first coined the term metaverse, even before any of today’s platforms existed.
That said, even now that we have more tangible ideas about the metaverse and its possibilities, it’s still in its infancy. This means that important concepts for humanity that have a place in the physical world, such as death, are still taking shape digitally.
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Digital architects like Mariana Cabugueira are reimagining the future of digital cemeteries, and researchers like Cole Imperi are monitoring the digital remains of human life online.
We may still not know what happens after we die; however, in the metaverse, we are getting closer to the answer.