Where is it okay for you to cry? In a room alone? Usually that’s where most of us do it. I was chatting with a friend this weekend about supportive communities for people grieving any kind of loss (divorce, death, abandonment) and the topic of places where it feels safe to cry came up. Of course there are grieving centers across the country, usually for teens and children but generally supportive of anyone in need. They provide counseling to help people move on and cope with loss. Their mission is not to create sanctuaries that silently allow people to openly show and share their grief.
Then I remembered the temple built at Burningman in 2001. If you haven’t heard of this yearly festival in the Nevada desert just search on the term and you’ll find enough social analysis and fan pages to keep you busy for months. Fundamentally it is a gathering of people who challenge perceptions of art and intentional community in a big way and you’ll always hear “burners” speak with a kind of awe about their whole experience–but the festival and its community are not exactly what I’m focusing on here. What fascinates me are the temporary temples built out on the Playa by installation artists David Best and Jack Haye and a crew of dedicated builders each year. Their structures constructed out of salvaged materials, elicit powerful reactions and are stunning and emotionally powerful spaces.
The Mausoleum or “Temple of Tears” was built to allow visitors to grieve death in a social space without having to analyze their reactions. During the event its altars were stacked with contributions, mementos, and tributes to the dead, and participants covered its walls with inscriptions. On entering the silence and focused attention of the crowd gathered there was always apparent. This complex and eloquent monument to the departed moved many people to tears. Pilgrims visiting it were encouraged to write prayers on the walls, mourning loved ones and commemorating those who had passed away. At the end of the festival, Best hosted a mass ritual of grief and burned his masterpiece to ash. And then he built another one, and another and another.
Art therapy often helps people overcome grief through the creation of talismans or ritual tools from found and discarded materials. They become physical symbols of pain and catalysts for creative catharsis. The social ritual of burning this amazing work of art was as powerful as seeing the structure constructed. Just think if there were the possibility of this kind of artistic ritual incorporated into the grieving process more often how liberating it would be.