Where Does the Responsibility Lie for Sedona Sweat Lodge Deaths?


Two people died and three others were airlifted in critical condition after they collapsed in a Sedona, Arizona sweat lodge last Thursday. So far, no one knows why, but there are several theories, and none of them look good for the man who ran the retreat where the sweat lodge was.

Sedona has been a new age mecca for years with its vortexes that allegedly release energy, its hodgepodge of mystics, healers, channelers, vision quest leaders, and others, as well as its incredible scenery. This mix of different seekers on various spiritual paths attracts thousands of people every year who also visit spiritual retreats that they have often paid thousands of dollars to attend.

The spiritual retreat at Angel Valley was supposed to be a five day “spiritual warrior” experience lead by a Carlsbad, California “self-help” expert. Each participant paid $9,000 to attend, and scores of people attended. The weeklong retreat also included seminars, solo experiences in the forest, and a 36-hour fast. The sweat lodge was built of wood and wrapped in plastic tarps and blankets. It was 415 square feet, 53 inches high in the center and 30 inches high at the perimeter. Authorities believe that 55 to 65 people may have been packed in here for a two-hour period. Adding to the tight quarters, heated rocks were doused in water for the steam and sandalwood was thrown on the rocks to affect incense.

Red Flags

According to authorities and experts, there are several things wrong with this. One is that the amount of money each participant paid. Natives who often lead ceremonial sweat lodge events will not take money and believe the non-natives who “lead” these retreats are exploiting the Natives, as well as those whose money they take. A sweat lodge wrapped in plastic doesn’t give the steam anywhere to go, raising the temperature inside the facility. The addition of sandalwood may have introduced a toxin into the overcrowded lodge, as well. An article published in the journal Science and Technology of Advanced Materials written by the National University of Singapore focuses on the danger of “continuous and prolonged exposure” to incense smoke.

Other spiritualists who have lead sweat lodge ceremonies raise similar concerns. One who has been involved in over a hundred of these experiences claims it is rare to have more than 20 people involved. The limit is placed on participants because the leader is supposed to monitor the well-being of those in the sweat lodge. These are certainly questions that should be asked of the facilitator, but he left town without even giving a statement to the police.

Possibility of Lawsuits

Those who would commit fraud on those seeking spiritual enlightenment are as old as religion. However, it should be asked if these people are responsible for the health of those who willfully enter a crowded sweat lodge. If the person who conducted the ceremony can be found to be at fault in this case, what might he be charged with? Fraud? Premises liability? Wrongful death? Autopsy results will not be available for several weeks, so it will not be known until later this month or next what toxicology tests discover. Until then, people might do well to question why they are being asked to pay thousands of dollars to go sit in a steaming lodge for spiritual enlightenment when there are much cheaper, and safer, ways to do this.