Sweaty as Hell, and Staring Down Death
Said to mimic end-of-life experiences, an ancient Native American sweat lodge ceremony has drawn new devotees, all eager to understand what it feels like to die.
Illustrations by Sally Madden
Just outside of the sweat lodge, a woman in a leopard-print sarong stares into a bonfire. Her tightly coiled black hair has fallen limp from the rain. She is barefoot and kneeling in the mud in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains, her glasses tucked away somewhere dry. She has lost track of time.
Her name is Diane Bryan, a fifty-one-year-old single mom, Navy veteran and mid-career college student from Newark, New Jersey. She is part of our group of a dozen here at a sweat lodge on a voluntary field trip for a class we are taking at Kean University on death and dying. We stick out flamboyantly in the woods like the urbanites we are. One young woman daintily balances a pink and green Alpha Kappa Alpha umbrella over her head. Another sports French-manicured acrylic fingernails and a shoulder tattoo of a heart pierced by an arrow.
The professor of the death class has taken us on field trips to places like the morgue, a maximum-security prison, a hospice faci…
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