This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on October 10, 2022 - October 16, 2022
“Death is not the opposite of life but an innate part of life,” Haruki Murakami writes in Norwegian Wood, a fictional tale about love and loss. But despite the inevitability of death, it is often considered a taboo topic and a source of anxiety for many.
With the hope of breaking the taboo and encouraging dialogue on loss, Bereev — a local deathtech start-up founded in 2018 — ran a poll on Reddit, a social news aggregator and forum, to unearth Malaysians’ perceptions of mortality.
The findings were unexpected but rather enlightening, says Bereev founder and CEO Izumi Inoue. Younger Malaysians are more open to discussing death and are making a concerted effort to overcome the belief that death is a dangerous and disturbing subject, he notes.
Bereev has an app that helps users prepare for their death in order to ease their families’ burden by saving them time and effort in dealing with the post-death administration process. Through the platform, every aspect of death, from the funeral arrangements to sorting out one’s will and final wishes, is planned out.
“I ran a poll asking young people [if they would] find it difficult to talk about death. Almost 81% said they didn’t find it objectionable, which showed us that most young Malaysians are okay with talking about death. The problem, however, is finding other people who are willing to talk to them about death,” says Izumi.
In the Reddit poll, he deliberately kept the question vague: “Do you find it difficult to talk about death?” and left it to the respondents to provide more information on what they were willing to discuss in relation to death.
“Sometimes people talk about death in the context of the passing of a celebrity, or basically someone they don’t know personally. Or talk about death from a philosophical angle. But there were people who voluntarily shared information [on whose death they were open to talking about] in the comments section,” says Izumi.
He was prompted to ask Redditors the question after his friends turned down his invitation to play the Death Deck, a party card game that aims to lighten the conversation on death. The cards contain a mix of multiple-choice and open-ended questions on the topic.
Their hesitance made Izumi think of a way to make people reflect on their mortality rather than reacting to it. When more than 1,900 respondents shared that they were comfortable discussing death despite its perceived morbidity, he knew he had to do something to help people talk about death in a free and unencumbered manner.
Since there weren’t many avenues to openly talk about mortality in a safe and open way, the Bereev team went to work and came up with the Death Convo Game, just in time for the company’s entry into the Australian market.
Bereev’s expansion abroad is seen as a natural progression as the Australian government is deeply invested in driving initiatives related to death such as the Australian Death Notification Service — an online self-service deceased administration portal that allows an individual to notify multiple organisations that someone has died so that their accounts can be closed or transferred.
While the game was created for its Australian campaign, it is open to all to play. The game delves deep into more engrossing topics surrounding death and connects people around the world in an open conversation about mortality.
For 45 days, the game poses one death-related question a day to players. Day 1 starts with a simple query: “Are you an organ donor? Why or why not?”
As the days go by, the questions get deeper and more thought-provoking. For example, on Day 10, players are asked: “Are you afraid to die? Why?” There are also some light-hearted ones such as “What type of music would you like at your funeral?” on Day 26.
At the end of the game on Day 45, users from as young as 16 to those in their eighties come together to talk about death in this safe space. The app allows people to respond anonymously as well as earn rewards such as discount vouchers or unlock free access to the premium version of the app, Bereev Plus, which costs RM699.
Izumi says the initial plan was to have a month-long game as he was inspired by Psycho-Cybernetics, a self-help book written by Maxwell Maltz in 1960, which states that it takes at least 21 days for humans to develop a new habit.
“It was extended by another two weeks due to popular demand. We had folks who were playing the game with strangers and found the experience helpful, so we had to accommodate that,” he adds.
Incorporating tech to gamify death conversations has changed attitudes towards talking about grief and helping the bereaved cope, says Izumi, adding that Bereev has plans to relaunch the game with a new set of questions in the near future.
“Let’s use technology to scale it up, right? Let’s connect people all over the world so they can have this conversation together. And we can do it in a game format so that we can show people that death conversations are not always going to be sad questions. It doesn’t have to be all morbid. Talking about death can have a positive impact too,” he says.
“By pondering and talking about our mortality, we’re actually taking charge of not just how we live life but also how we leave it. Talking about our own death is actually very empowering and talking about the death of our loved ones can be a very cathartic experience for those who are grieving.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has definitely empowered and helped people feel more confident talking about death, says Izumi. To date, the deadly virus has resulted in the death of 6.5 million people worldwide and 36,365 Malaysians.
“In the early days of the pandemic, when there was no vaccine, even the young and healthy succumbed to the illness. I think [the pandemic] showed that death is not a distant reality,” says Izumi.
“No matter how young or how healthy we are, death can just happen all of a sudden. I think Covid-19 is a kind of reset button to people’s perception of death, especially among the young.”
Bereev saw an increase in signups and website traffic shortly after the pandemic struck in March 2020, but these plateaued after the country started the transition to the endemic phase of Covid-19.
No matter how death-positive a person may be, it does not rule out the fact that the topic is depressing and can take a toll on one’s mental health. Recognising this, Bereev’s services will soon include mental health support and positive affirmations on the platform, says Izumi.
“The feedback that we often receive is that even the most death-positive users find it difficult when they sit down and create their death plan. It can be very overwhelming when they ask themselves, ‘What happens when I die? What happens to the people I know and love?’” says Izumi.
This is why the start-up has been actively engaging with medical professionals and clinical psychologists with expertise in hospice and palliative care. Bereev will start rolling out mental support, mental health resources and prompts on the app to help users deal with the fear of death by the end of this year.
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