Symbol-making, ritual and singing over bones |

Symbol-making, ritual and singing over bones

Amy Edgett
Artist David Best constructed Burning Man art installions known as Temples from recycled wood — by-products of toymaking cutouts. He oversaw construction from 2001-2004, and again in 2007 and 2012. They were entitled: The Temples of Tears, Joy, Honor, Stars, Forgiveness and Juno. Collaborative camp crews created Temples of Dreams, Hope, Basura Sagrada, Flux, Transition and the 2013 Temple of Whollyness.
Courtesy Scott London / | Scott London

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TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. — Dr. Kim Bateman has sipped the bitter pall of grief for more than 8,625 days.

Her brother, Chad Murray Bateman, died in an avalanche while extreme skiing on March 15, 1990. Her image of that time was of his body at the bottom of a 750-foot cliff, his bones, all broken.

Kim Bateman, a North Tahoe High graduate, earned a degree in humanities at Sierra Nevada College, a master’s in academic research from Humbolt State, and in 1999 earned a P.H.D. in clinical psychology from the Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara. She presented a TEDx Talk in Grass Valley, Singing Over Bones, and delivered a paper at the 10th Global Conference on Death and Dying in Athens, Greece.

The central theme of the fall 2013 presentations is the bereavement process, using folktales and the Temples of Burning Man to illustrate a path of healing.

“Your absence has gone through me like thread through a needle, everything I do is stitched with its colors.”
William S. Merwin, Poetry Foundation

“We have no extended rituals of death,” said Bateman. “Everyone is in pain, we need a space for that holding … the love of the person who is gone.”


In Singing Over Bones, Bateman weaves her personal story with a voice often wavering with emotion, her hands and breath and movement of a sister who suffered the loss of her beloved, adventurous brother, but also of a consummate storyteller.

It’s in her genes, said Bateman, whose brown eyes are soulful and empathetic. Her lineage is strong with Northern Plains Cree, her father’s sermons mesmerized as the Archbishop of the Episcopalian Church in Canada, and campfire tales told by her grandfather — always about a peg leg and accompanying thump, thump, thump — “scared the s#%$” out of the children.

It is from this place of bereavement, of storytelling, of studies in both interdisciplinary and depth psychological perspectives, that Bateman paves a path from chaotic loss to ritual healing.

Bateman has long used myths and fairy tales to present archetypal human conditions: addiction, joy, and great loss. “Stories from all over contain certain psychological truths, an external representation of internal dynamics we are working through,” she said.

In Singing Over Bones, Bateman describes the process of loss, telling how strong her brother Chad was growing up, with many broken bones that healed quickly, and the terrible realization his bones are now, forever, broken.

Coming from a long line of stoic Norwegians, her father said “Three out of three people die, so shut up and deal.” Her mother has been crying for 23 years.

In 1990, when her brother died, Bateman’s 3-year-old son asked where Uncle Chad was now. As an academic, she told her child Christians believe he is in heaven, scientists believe we are all a form of intertwined energy, and Buddhists believe he will be reincarnated. With the insight of the young, her son asked, “Yes, yes, but what do WE believe?”

It gave her pause.

Bateman describes in the process of loss, we still love. We are introduced to a forced goodbye in the physical, but we are offered the opportunity to say hello to them in the imaginable.

“When someone dies, there used to be a physical, and now it is abstract,” said Bateman. “It’s hard to love something that’s abstract, so we create or author that person’s stories … with imaginable integrity … an angel carries us through … and brings the person back to the concrete.”

This is demonstrated throughout time. A grand example is the Taj Mahal, built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal.

Bateman used a Native American mythical example in Singing Over Bones, which she has since rewritten as “Nyctea,” (nick-tee-uh).


The tale is representative of reconstructing from the turmoil of loss. Nyctea is an ancient crone-like figure, with feet like roots and greasy-gray matted hair and mossy breath. Her large eyes are fixed in their sockets — she cries more bird-like than human. Nyctea, which means “by the night,” collects forest treasures, snail shells, mushrooms, lichen and fox fur. But the most coveted treasures of all are bits of owl — bones, feathers, talons — which Nyctea lovingly reassembles with earth from a creek. Crooning as a grandmother would over a child, Nyctea sings, molds and breathes the owl to life, which spreads its wings and flies … “leaving a downy feather or two and the quivering memory of its beauty in the dank, wet air.”

It illustrates the process of grief, transformed from the mayhem of our hearts through ritual.

Bateman, with her children, created a ritual on the anniversary of her brother’s death. They would go to the river with a purple rose (Chad was a Dead Head) and drop a single petal in the water’s flow while reciting a favorite memory.

At the 2013 Burning Man, Bateman discovered a somber and lesser known “burn” ritual at the art festival’s close.

Beginning in the year 2000, temples were constructed and subsequently burned in memorial, with a collection of private and public pieces commemorating those who have died.

The burning of the temples evolved from the personal tragedy of Petaluma artist David Best, who transformed his installation, Temple of the Mind, into a memorial piece after his dear friend died.

Best continued his intricately designed works, inviting all Burning Man participants to leave personal messages, symbols and mementos to the deceased within its walls.

In her paper, “Symbol-making in Bereavement: The Temples at Burning Man,” Bateman cites symbols as “connecting the unconscious with the conscious, the instinctual with the rational,” joining past, present and future considerations.

Dozens of pairs of army boots were arranged in a spiral, with the names of American soldiers who died in Afghanistan on the temple floor. A little girl’s braid with a purple ribbon said simply “AMY;” a wedding dress hung from the temple rafters, wafting in the breeze, with a note pinned to it that read: “I’m sorry you didn’t make it to our wedding.”

Thousands of artifacts from this life of those lost to death adorned the 2013 temple — the Temple of Whollyness.

Bateman offered a T-shirt brother Chad gave her one Christmas that said, “My little brother loves me,” finding space in the Black Rock Desert to “let it go.”

“The simplest answer known to great pain is that it makes it easier to sit with others in the abyss,” said Bateman. “The temple experience is amazing, with thousands of people sitting in sacred silence, and in knowing you are not alone, lies solace.”


The Temples take the ritual of reconstruction one step further: the cleansing act of burning fire, a timeless ceremony. In Ireland, a wicker man was burned in villages, in Iran there is a festival of fire, Celtic fire festivals include the three-day Samhain and Beltane.

In the desert, the Temple burning “holds the opposites of creation and destruction and accurately mirrors the bereaved’s relationship to the deceased,” Bateman wrote for the Athens conference.

“Fire is a transformative agent, the forest is blackened yet set up for re-growth,” she said. “The metallurgist, the alchemist, all knew that fire transforms.”

In Singing Over Bones, Bateman tells us to re-construct, beginning with the great drumming of our hearts. Imagine what brought your loved one joy, their physicality, their scent. Sit in the greatest place of love, sing over the bones and doing so, marvelous things will happen.

“You have to trust the psyche to come out … everybody finds their own way through,” Bateman concluded.

Scott London, a longtime Burning Man photographer and co-author of a forthcoming book “The Art of Burning Man,” graciously shared his images. Find more images with the article at

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