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In Session: Deus et Machina: Religion and Technology in Asian Cultures
3: Corporeality, Authenticity, and Virtual Ancestor Worship in Contemporary China
Wednesday, March 24, 2021
3:00pm – 4:30pm EDT
University of Pennsylvania, United States
Ancestor worship is one of the main features of Chinese religious culture, but modern life presents significant challenges to traditional forms of ancestral sacrifice. In an increasingly mobile society, family members are now spread across the globe, making it harder to visit an ancestral hall or gravesite. Moreover, a lack of physical space to bury the dead in dense urban centers has prompted changes in mortuary practices. One innovative approach to this situation has been the emergence of virtual services such as iVeneration, which combines a physical columbarium that houses the remains of the deceased with an online platform that offers multiple ways to commemorate them. This talk will draw on contemporary theories of virtual ritual to offer an analysis of iVeneration’s unique platform. The two main issues raised by scholars of virtual ritual are corporeality and authenticity. Do religious rituals require bodily participation to be efficacious, or does the virtual nature of these rituals prevent an authentic transformative experience? The founders of iVeneration address these concerns by supplementing their current 2D online interface, in which the worshipper can select from a variety of sacrificial offerings and play religious chants and prayers, with an eventual 3D Virtual Reality interface that allows worshippers to “walk” through a graveyard using a VR headset and even touch the offerings with wireless VR gloves, thereby resulting in a more immersive experience. This virtual approach to ritual suggests new directions in emerging approaches to the relationship between technology and religion in Asia and beyond.