At Burning Man, I’ve seen a temple burn to the ground 13 times. Every single one, since 2001. Each of them moved me in ways that would seem impossible for a building on fire to do. Last year was no exception, but it was also different in a way that makes me fear for the future of this young tradition.
Each year, I visit the temple and stand among a sorrowful crowd, reading through tear-blurred eyes the inscriptions covering every inch of its walls. Goodbyes written by the thousands in the full palette of permanent marker; to a former lover, to a cancer in remission, to a past violent trauma, and most of all, to the dead. Then there are the things people bring and leave there; photos of a grandmother, letters to a friend, a beloved pet’s favorite toy, the graceful white gown from a wedding that never happened. These things are placed here publicly, each a token that shows how we share the sadness as well as the fun. When I am grieving, the temple tells me that I am not alone.
So far, the temple burn has carried forth the atmosphere of the temple itself. It’s been a place of quiet contemplation—a rare thing at Burning Man. Art car sound systems are turned off, people speak in hushed voices. The burn starts with a song. Without amplification, a lone singer’s voice carries for hundreds of meters across the desert. The building is set alight without pyrotechnic fanfare, and burns until it’s gone. This makes sense, much like writing on its walls makes sense: we are together, but we acknowledge that each individual’s experience is personal.
Last year, something new happened. As that beautiful building toppled, a tentative cheer arose from the crowd. It wasn’t the jubilance of the previous night’s Man Burn. Rather, it was clear that each person shouting was unsure, but took a cue from those around them.
We’ve reached a point where we don’t know if we should revel or be silent. We are at a crossroads, one more important than I think we realize.
If Burning Man exists in a space outside the world, then the temple is removed even one step further. It has an unusual quality, bereft and joyful at once. The air feels more still; quiet and reverent, yet aware of the irony that it exists inside a week-long nonstop party. It stands as a symbol of everything we’ve lost but aren’t yet ready to give up. And like every good memorial, it celebrates those things as well.
As an agnostic from a devoutly atheist family, I’ve often experienced some discomfort with the religious themes I saw in the temple. They led me to question my own identity as a Burning Man participant. How could an event that espouses no faith have a temple as one of its central features? And yet, its effect on me was so profound. I didn’t make sense of it until a friend’s death in 2010. Visiting during my own personal experience of mourning made it clear to me how the temple uses the design language of religion, but for an entirely different purpose.
People have been creating religious buildings for millennia. They’ve evolved a consistent set of architectural patterns, which exist to inspire awe and reverence for a deity, to connect each visitor to the glory of something unseen and larger than themself. The building’s design creates a sense of permanence, strengthening the focus on the afterlife.
In Black Rock City, we borrow liberally from this architectural heritage. We create a grand edifice, but one that directs our thoughts outward instead of upward. The Burning Man temple inspires in us that same awe and reverence, but for one another.
Then we burn it down, calling attention to the myth of permanence—reminding us to appreciate the friends, the family, and the days we have.
It’s a rare piece of art that can do this well. Even more unusual is an artistic genre, a set of patterns, that when followed create such a piece. To me it says, “God is other people.” To our community, the temple is more than that.
A community is, fundamentally, a convergence of individuals for mutual support. At Burning Man we support one another in creating things. We celebrate, we build, we love one another. I believe that collectively, we do all of these things extremely well. I see things in that desert that are utterly sublime. I feel so humbled, and so fortunate, to be able to stand among you.
Yet, for our lives to be whole, we need to be supported in our darkest hours as well as our brightest. I witness this everywhere. Parties are thrown to pay for a much-needed surgery; spare rooms open up when relationships end; tiny boats are floated into the sea and set alight in memoriam.
The temple allows us to mourn together, to mourn without judgement, to each create the stories that help us to bear our lives’ inevitable tragedies. Here, our culture’s traditions help us to frame our grief, to give us a path through it, to define the point at which it becomes appropriate to move on.
Our traditions also create a space among one another to pay respect to what once was. If we each hope to be remembered when we’re gone, then we must in turn value remembrance.
In this context, tradition is a form of social infrastructure. It’s a shared resource that we create together because we know we’ll need it later: we’ve been here before, and we will be again. In turn, we have to maintain and update it lest it fall into disrepair or become harmful to us.
Like any good piece of infrastructure, a solid tradition can benefit those from outside the community that built it. On Thursday afternoon last year, a procession of BLM rangers arrived at the temple to place a memorial plaque for Special Agent Michael Dwayne Bolinger. He was a ranger who had worked Burning Man for many years, and died of a brain tumor last June. Kelly Reynolds, his widow, carried the plaque inside and a close friend gave a eulogy. In that moment, the mutual distrust between the police and the participants fell away. Truly, our shared sadness demonstrates our interdependence. It can unite us in ways that our joy never will.
Nowhere else have I seen a tradition like ours. We have created a spiritual place that is at once secular and respectful of faith. It has the power to connect us in spite of the borders we draw around ourselves, to tap into the things that unite us all as human beings. In a very important way, the temple makes us free. It is a special thing, and we must treat it with care.
Traditions often evolve, but they can also be created consciously. I believe it’s time for a conversation about what we want our temple tradition to look like.
Watching as the pain of thousands is released into the windy night sky inspires a complex array of feelings. But, I’m worried that unchecked revelry at this key moment could alienate those among us who need the temple the most; that they will no longer feel safe or supported, and they will start to seek their solace elsewhere.
If we lose this space, if the party overtakes it, will we will have lost something important, something that makes our community whole? If the solemn temple burn is a tradition worth preserving, what is the path forward for a community that eschews rules, and remixes social norms as fast as they can be created?
It’s possible for one to experience joy silently while others mourn. However, the opposite is often not true. Maybe it’s reasonable to ask the person next to you to hush if they begin to applaud and cheer as the temple falls.