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Date: 01/01/2014
  • Practices
  • Honoring Our Pain
  • Emerging Facilitators
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Cairn Of Mourning

Revised by Kathleen Rude. Originally from chapter 7 of Coming Back to Life by Joanna Macy and Molly Brown; second edition, published 2014. Please acknowledge the source when you use any of these practices.


Time: 30 minutes


This ritual practice is similar in function to the Bestiary, but allows people to express more personally their grief for what is happening to the world. In knowing the depth of this sorrow, they can know the depth of their belonging, from which comes the power to endure hardship and to act for the well-being of all.



The Cairn of Mourning is often done out of doors, though the process can be held inside as well. Invite people to wander outside, alone, calling to mind a particular part of their world, a place or being precious to them that is lost now or disappearing from their life. They find an object – say, a rock, a cluster of leaves, a stick – to symbolize what they mourn, and bring it with them when they rejoin the group.

When all are seated in a circle, the simple ritual begins. One by one, at random, people arise, walk to the center and place their object. As they do, they speak. They describe the loss that the object represents—family farm, paved over creek, neighborhood store —and their feelings about it; then they formally say good-bye to it. As each offering is made and the objects pile up to form a heap or “cairn,” all in the circle serve as witnesses and acknowledge the speaker by saying, “We hear you.”

The ritual can end with people sitting in twos or threes to express more fully the grief they felt as objects were added to the cairn. Or it can close with people holding hands as they sound together.



When natural objects cannot be collected to represent the losses, such as when working indoors, use squares of paper instead. Let people take three or four squares on which they can write words or draw images to represent the losses they would honor. Place an open basket in the center of the circle. People bring one square at a time to the basket, describing the loss it represents—blue sky, a beloved tree, bird song. This method allows for a variety of creative expressions, some people writing short poems, some drawing pictures.


Contributor/Author: Kathleen Rude / Joanna Macy & Molly Brown