IN 2011, AS a researcher interested in death and mourning, I decided to explore the now ‘mature’ virtual social world Second Life. It is a vast, online geography that replicates with astonishing detail extravagant real-world places such as New York, Paris and London while also containing more mundane copies of shopping malls, beaches, churches, mosques, amusement parks, cafés and suburbs. These virtual places are populated with ‘residents’, people who set up lives with other users of the platform.
I stepped into Second Life with the aim of discovering how the condition of human mortality might reveal itself in a virtual world, and what
I found was significant: dozens of cemeteries that honour the deaths of Second Life residents as well as real-life family, friends and celebrities; rituals such as funerals taking place; and memorials on both public and private virtual land. I visited the 9/11 memorial in New York, military memorials, vampire graves and a memorial to transgender lives. I spent seven years visiting one particular cemetery – the Second Afterlife Cemetery – and walked through its graves, mapping the kinds of lives represented on headstones in text, photographs and video. This cemetery relies for its continuance on donations and rental fees for plots. It is a small business and a community service. Most graves are rented and so they come and go, and I’ve been able to document these changes. I’ve been told many stories about the lives behind the headstones and have been surprised by the strength of bonds created between the avatars that populate these spaces. I’ve had to wrestle with an avatar aesthetic of always youthful and exaggerated, stereotypically gendered bodies, and with the kind of emotional insensibility or dissonance of how these bodies – which replicate the age-defying, death-denying bodies of the cosmetic surgery industry – might be grieved.
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