Entrepreneur wants ‘death experience’ venue to raise discussion about life

By Zhang Yiqian Source:Global Times Published: 2015-2-16 5:03:02

Huang Weiping, founder of Hand in Hand, an NGO that provides terminal care services, is planning a death experience venue. Photo: Courtesy of Huang Weiping

Huang Weiping has played many roles: successful businessman, psychological consultant, and NGO director. But after the Chinese New Year, he will be playing a new role: the God of Death.

The founder of Hand in Hand, an NGO based in Shanghai that provides hospice services, is building a "death experience" venue with a partner, complete with a 4D furnace that simulates heat when bodies are being "burned."

Huang accumulated a great deal of wealth in his time as a businessman, but over time, felt unfulfilled and wanted to do something different. In 2008, when the Wenchuan earthquake struck, he went to the area as a voluntary consultant.

Seeing death in Sichuan prompted Huang to think seriously about mortality. He established Hand in Hand and started providing terminal care services to cancer patients in Shanghai. Currently, his focus has shifted to building a venue to help people start thinking about death.

The awakening

Playing dead at the venue begins with leaving a will as part of a group. Then the group goes through a door, which symbolizes death. After that, visitors are transferred one by one on a conveyor belt to a furnace. In a silent, closed environment, a "fire" starts burning.

After the "burning," visitors see a simulated image of a womb, projected onto the ceiling. Then they hear heartbeats and see a light, which indicates the exit. After visitors crawl out of that exit, they find themselves in a pure, white space, indicating rebirth. 

Huang planned the entire process with his partner Ding Rui. They think this best represents the experiences of death and rebirth. Currently, the venue is still under construction, although the idea has been brewing for a few years.

In order to design the 4D furnace, Huang and his partner lied down in a real one at the Shanghai funeral home.

Before going into the furnace, Huang said his heart pounded fast. He could only tell himself not to panic. The conveyor belt squeaked as it took him inside the furnace and darkness engulfed him. Then the fan started blowing inside the furnace and ashes blew all over his face.

Huang thinks such experiences will at least get people thinking about life and death.

"Right now, many avoid talking about death. That's the culture in this society," he said. "We hope to provide an environment where people can have the opportunity to explore for themselves the answer to such questions."

Wake-up call

Before entering this field, Huang was a successful entrepreneur. He described himself as having earned some money, and became "engulfed in worldly pleasures." At that time, he gambled, and sought out new experiences in town. Before long, he spent almost all his money and his wife divorced him.

Afterwards, earning money became less attractive. He then went to Shanghai University to study psychology.

Just then, Wenchuan, Sichuan Province was struck by a devastating earthquake. Huang, who had previously received training as a consultant, went to the disaster-stricken area to try helping people relieve their trauma.

Huang said people recovered at different rates. For some, their misery lingered. But others started getting back to rebuilding their homes on the third day.

Moreover, the experience impacted on Huang himself.

"When I faced disaster, for the first time it triggered my thoughts on the fact that people will eventually die," he said.

After he came back from Wenchuan, Huang started an NGO, Hand in Hand, and started providing care to people with terminal illnesses.

The volunteers went into hospitals and accompanied people with only months to live. Many patients refused to talk about death, and many relatives also avoided this topic.

But there were some who were willing to talk and get across what their needs were in the last stages of their lives.

"There was one patient who couldn't even eat, but he requested we bring some fruit so he could smell it," Huang said.

Huang thinks such discussion is needed. He also tried to increase social awareness of the issue.

About 36,000 people die from cancer and other major diseases in Shanghai every year, but there are fewer than 100 terminal care hospital beds in the city, Huang said to government officials at the first Shanghai-wide Friends of Charity Day in 2012.

As a result, the Shanghai government investigated the matter and started providing terminal care hospital wards in every district.

Uneasy experience

But it was easier to provide help to the sick than to convince the healthy to start thinking about death early.

Before he had made plans for the venue, Huang had experimented with something similar during the 2012 Shanghai Charity Expo. He would invite people to lie in a coffin for 10 minutes, while volunteers from Hand in Hand dressed up as "death gods," wearing black robes, skull masks and holding reaper's sickles.

Over three days, only about 40 people took part in the experience. A third were curious and actually gave some thoughts about the matter, a third only stood around and took photos, and another a third turned away saying the practice was inauspicious.

Huang has faced tough questions on TV as well. In order to gain funding, he appeared in at least a dozen TV shows that help entrepreneurs win investments, but many questioned the feasibility of his concept.

"Who would need something like this? Who would be interested?" one investor had asked him. And the TV host shuddered when she saw the picture of a furnace burning.

Many thought that he was insane to come up with a weird gimmick like this.

But Huang thinks people should turn their fear of death into an appreciation of life. He thinks most people don't have the chance to face death directly, but in his opinion, death never goes away and constantly affects everyone.

"I hope the life experience venue can be a creative way to explore education on life and death," he said.

Newspaper headline: Live and let die

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