By her own account, Ann Viveros has experienced considerable loss, but until she signed up for a Midsummer Memory Mandalas workshop at Minneapolis’ Lakewood Cemetery, she’d never found a ritual that helped her process her grief in a way that truly spoke to her heart.

The mandala workshop that Viveros attended was led by Day Schildkret, an internationally respected earth artist, author and public speaker. In 2019, with an eye to expanding the cemetery’s reach and supporting the mental health of people experiencing grief and loss, Lakewood staff invited Schildkret to lead participants in a workshop explaining the process he developed for creating nature-based mandalas, or “morning altars” that acknowledge the loss of a loved one.

Schildkret’s work is featured in his book “Hello Goodbye: 75 Rituals for Times of Loss, Celebration and Change.”  

Viveros, who has been working as an end-of-life doula since 2020, was aware of Schildkret’s work and was interested in learning how to make a morning altar as a way to process her own grief over the death of her mother and support the grieving process of her clients.

“I’d seen Day’s book on someone’s coffee table,” Viveros said. “It was beautiful. The concept of impermanence, the use of flowers, the meditation and the focus on grief all had components that spoke to me.”

At the Lakewood workshop, Viveros said Schildkret led participants in the process of creating a morning altar, which included thoughtful meditation and centering, gathering natural elements to build an impermanent memorial that would eventually be reabsorbed into the earth, and conversation with other participants about the process and meaning of each altar.

“Day talked about this idea of working side-by-side with nature,” she said. This approach means acting with respect for the natural world, she added: “He explained that we should ask the land if it is OK to take this pine cone and use it to be part of our altar, or if we pick a flower to ask permission or maybe even sing a song to express our gratitude. It is a way of creating art in harmony with the natural world.”

Viveros has returned to Lakewood several times to participate in Schildkret’s annual workshops. And she’s incorporated morning altars into her life. “The practice really speaks to me because it is out in nature,” she said. “it is about impermanence. It is about beauty and art and mandalas and flowers.” 

In December 2021, Viveros’ brother died unexpectedly, and she created a number of morning altars to help her process the loss. “We were really close,” she said of her brother. “We lived near each other. We had similar interests and values. It was a hard loss. I found myself turning to this practice as a way to cope.”

Viveros’ brother was cremated and she collected items for a morning altar that she brought with her to the crematorium. Because it was winter, there were fewer natural elements available to include in her creation. Instead, she explained, “I created a morning altar out of flowers that my friends had sent to my home. I took those flowers to the cremation site.” Before her brother’s body was cremated, she said, “I put a little mourning altar on his chest. It was super-personal, super-intimate.”

Ann Viveros
Ann Viveros: “The practice really speaks to me because it is out in nature. It is about impermanence. It is about beauty and art and mandalas and flowers.”

Viveros also created other morning altars that she placed outside her brother’s house, and later, on a weekend respite that she and her partner took not long after the death. Family and friends also held three memorials for her brother. At each one, Viveros started a morning altar and guests participated in its creation.

Building morning altars for her brother helped Viveros work through her grief in a new way. “It gave me something to do,” she said. “My hands were busy making this beautiful piece of impermanent art. As I was placing the flowers I found myself saying a blessing or thinking of my brother. It felt like a beautiful way to let go.”

Morning altars

Schildkret came up with the concept of morning altars in 2011, after the death of his father.

In the confusing days after his father’s death, Schildkret adopted his dog. He’d take the dog on long walks every day. “She got me out of the house,” he said of the dog. “She saved my life. She’d be really curious, running around, sniffing, and I’d just be walking with my head down, looking at the ground.”  

Schildkret felt submerged in his grief, but he said time spent outside in nature slowly opened his eyes to the beauty of the natural world: “Along the way, I started to find things that had dropped from the sky, like beautiful leaves, a feather, a cluster of berries.”

One day, Schildkret and the dog walked to a hill near his house. “I sat down and started arranging the things I’d found,” he said. The act was a kind of meditation. “An hour went by. I felt like a kid again. I had made a beautiful thing that honored my father. In that moment, I suddenly felt like my grief wasn’t suffocating me.”

The realization that building a thing of beauty in honor of his father’s memory could actually help him process his grief inspired Schildkret to keep creating.

“I had made something very orderly,” Schildkret said. “That was somehow therapeutic for me, putting things together in symmetry after the disruption of his death. It helped me remember that life could be orderly again.” After he created the morning altar, Schildkret made a decision that would change his life. “I made a commitment to myself that for 30 days I would go on a dog walk, bring a basket, collect things I found on the way and use them to make something beautiful,” he said.

Day Schildkret came up with the concept of morning altars in 2011, after the death of his father.

Schildkret wanted to use this experience to help others, so he began spreading the word about the healing power he found in the practice. He eventually developed seven steps to accompany the building of morning altars: wondering and wandering, place meditation, clearing space, creating, gifting, walking away and sharing the art. At his Lakewood workshops, Schildkret guides participants through each of the steps. He also creates a larger piece of land art during his workshop residency that is displayed at the cemetery.

Viveros said that, for her, the most meaningful of Schildkret’s seven steps is the time when participants share their art and talk about its meaning and the person it honors. She said that having an opportunity to talk about loss and share the personal story behind each altar is an important opportunity for healing and growth.

“I think grieving people like to tell stories about death and their loved one who died,” Viveros said. “To make an impermanent altar in a cemetery and to tell your story to a group of strangers is really cathartic.” 

When it was time to talk about her own altar, she recalled, “I got to say something about who my brother was and who my family is. This process is more powerful than just talking to a group of strangers over a cup of coffee: It’s actually telling them about my brother while we are all looking at this piece of artwork that I have created to honor him.”

The fact that participants have to leave their morning altars behind to slowly return to the earth is an important part of Schildkret’s process. He encourages people to take pictures of their art and share it with others, especially those who also loved the person it memorializes. Then, at the end of the workshop, the altars are left where they were placed around the cemetery, to eventually disappear.

This approach, Viveros said, powerfully “symbolizes the impermanence of life. It feels like such a perfect practice to do when we are talking about death and dying and grief. It is a symbol of that impermanence to make something beautiful and just leave it there.”

A place for the living

Though people today often think of cemeteries as a place for the dead and not for the living, Schildkret said that has not always been the case.

“In the 1800s, people would take their family with a picnic and spend the day together in a cemetery. It was a beautiful place and it was treated more like a park.” Lakewood, he said, is among a small-but-growing number of American cemeteries that are working to welcome the general public, to make their space feel more welcoming in an attempt to reduce fear around death and support mental health around grief and loss. 

Lakewood is one of Schildkret’s favorite cemeteries. “Every time I visit there I’m so taken with how much vision Lakewood has in leading the cemetery community. The fact that they are doing these kinds of programs to make cemeteries once again a place where living people gather to learn and celebrate their loved ones is remarkable.”

He said that a general cultural reluctance to visit cemeteries only makes the experience of facing death and dying more difficult. “People really struggle when they have loss and grief. The culture we live in doesn’t really provide many opportunities to learn how to grieve well. A lot of people are struggling with anxiety, depression, isolation. Our reluctance to approach and acknowledge death isn’t helping.”

A Morning Altar Ann Viveros made on her patio.
A morning altar Ann Viveros made on her patio.

Julia Gillis, Lakewood Cemetery director of marketing and outreach, said the nonprofit has been expanding its mental health support programming for years. Beyond Schildkret’s workshops, there are a number of options, including a “grief tea ceremony” led by a palliative care nurse, a community book club focused on readings around grief and loss, an annual lantern-lighting ceremony and an upcoming moderated panel of death doulas. Many of the programs will be held in Lakewood’s new Welcome Center, which opened this spring.

“We’re trying to give people opportunities to connect with others around grief and loss,” Gillis said. “We’re trying to support community mental health. We are focused on supporting grief as a natural part of life.”

Schildkret said that building a sense of community around grief and loss through this kind of in-person programming is especially important as the world emerges from a difficult time when many people experienced isolation and anxiety.

“We learned during Covid how hard it is to grieve alone,” he said. “For everyone I teach these workshops to, what comes out is that it is so essential to their mental health to witness each other’s losses and grief. When we gather people together, we hear their stories and learn about each others’ grief and beauty and memories. This practice improves people’s mental health and makes the world a better place.”

Schildkret will return to Minneapolis Aug. 3 and 4 for a talk and morning altars workshop. The events are open to the public.

This article first appeared on MinnPost and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.