Sweat lodge enthusiasts have denied that their ceremonial groups are cults and have called the death of a Melbourne man in South Australia during a traditional American sweat lodge ceremony, “a senseless tragedy”.
Rowen Cooke, 37, was pronounced dead on arrival at Leigh Creek Hospital on Wednesday after apparently succumbing to severe dehydration.
A woman claiming to be a friend of Mr Cooke told ABC radio’s Jon Faine this morning the rituals may seem strange to outsiders, but they give one a sense of peace and balance, and of closeness to god.
“When this news filtered through yesterday, we were profoundly aware of the perceptions of the wider community about the practices that we do … and how unusual Rowan’s death has been,” said the woman, who gave her name as Joanne.
“When we hear the word ‘cult’ that causes a great deal of pain because that’s actually not who we are at all. We’re more eclectic than that. We don’t believe the same things. We share common values, common goals, common aspirations, common ways of being, and that’s really about it.”
Mr Cooke has been identified as the leader of the group involved in the ceremony in which he died. A group member said the use of bore water might be linked to his death.
Adrian Asfar, 30, who was hospitalised but survived the tragedy, said the only thing different to previous sweat lodge sessions was the use of underground water.
“The only thing I can think of that was different was that we used bore water,” he told reporters.
South Australian police were still preparing a report for the state coroner in relation to the incident which claimed the life of a 37-year-old Victorian man.
Mr Asfar was airlifted to the Port Augusta Hospital for treatment and remained in hospital overnight.
They were among of a group of 11 friends, all from Melbourne, who had been camping on a property 100 kilometres from Leigh Creek to take part in the purification rituals which involve sitting inside a small tepee like structure for several hours with hot rocks and water used to raise the temperature to up to 60 degrees celsius.
Joanne said sweat lodges were known to sometimes go wrong, but that such instances were “few and far between”.
“‘Rowan is somebody who we loved. This was an incredibly beautiful human being who has a wife and a 12-month-old son and people who loved him. This is a senseless tragedy,” she said.
The death was not the first attributed to sweat lodges, with two people dying during a similar ceremony in California in 2002 and others in Britain and Texas in the 1990s.
The ceremony, said to align the body, mind and spirit, involves meditation and sometimes chanting and drumming with participants pouring water over hot rocks, lifting the temperature comparable to that of a traditional steam sauna.
But unlike saunas, those taking part in the ceremony can stay inside for several hours at a time.
– with agencies
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