Death and the City

In 2018, just like years past, we’ll gather around the Temple on Sunday night, the air of solemn calm made even more pronounced by the week of cacophony that led up to it.

Thousands of lives have been memorialized in the cyclonic plumes of ash, dust and fire rising from the top of our most hallowed community art piece — and this year, we will add more.

It would be unfair to say any one life is more significant than another, any loss greater than another, particularly on the hearts of the people that will feel that loss the greatest. But it would be equally unfair not to note the significance of the passing of Larry Harvey as having a disproportionately larger ripple through the community than possibly any year before.

This is what we designed this ritual for. It is us performing one of the most source-code functions of our own humanity.

The Primal Nature of Temple

The very last long conversation I had with Larry was on the front porch of First Camp on the Monday morning following the 2017 Temple burn. It was late afternoon, and we were watching the city slowly begin to disappear. We ended up in a discussion about the reflexive and primal nature of the Temple burn.

Of all the fundamental, recurring component parts of Burning Man, the argument can be made that the Temple burn is the one that was created culturally from the bottom up. David Best’s 2001 Temple ignited something in our culture that we didn’t know we needed but turned out to be really important: a place to honor our dead and to process death as a community.

Larry and I argued that this need may be one of the most central organizing pillars of human society. If we took a group of humans from any age, erased all memory of their previous life, put them anywhere, and tasked them with rebuilding society from the ground up, their impulse would be to honor and collectively process death shortly after establishing shelter and a reasonably reliable source of food and water.

For some of the group, we speculated that religion would be born as part of the need to honor and process death, and over time science would slowly replace religion as the pockets of ignorance of biology and life sciences became progressively smaller.

But intimately knowing the frail impermanence of a single human body is cold comfort. It is also wildly unsatisfying to know that the ultimate fate of the human body’s organs is guaranteed failure, and that at best all we can only stave this failure off temporarily.

Solitary Pursuit, Collective Ritual

Black Rock City is not a notably religious place. Its nearest neighboring town of Gerlach is somewhat famous for being a small town with five bars but no churches. In the absence of shared conviction of some divine after-party for the pious, the faithless are often left to carry the fullness of death among the living — possibly in an even greater sense than those who believe in a better beyond across some rainbow bridge.

While death is the ultimate solitary pursuit, its processing is inherently a collective one. Each of us is at the center of our own social hub — a circle of family and friends, accomplices and coworkers. A simple glance at anyone’s friends list on Facebook is easy evidence of the amount of lives that directly touch ours. When any one of us moves beyond our mortality, the collective instinct of the circle around us is to pull in tighter to close the gaps we leave behind.

This year, we will once again pull the circle tighter to fill in the spaces left from those no longer here.  And when we do, what we are left with is again born from loss. A community whose bonds become stronger, and whose love becomes deeper.

Top photo by Stewart Harvey

About the author: Buck AE Down

Buck AE Down

Among other things, Buck AE Down is the Central Services Assistant Manager of the Black Rock City Gate, Perimeter and Exodus Department. He designed the Burning Man event ticket in 2008 and 2014, as well as the official event poster in 2016. He was a founding member of the Mutaytor and the Gentlemen Callers of Los Angeles, and was once the Mayor of Gigsville, along with scores of other odd jobs around Black Rock City for the better part of the last 20 years. He is a regular contributor to the BRC Weekly and Piss Clear. He lives in Pasadena, California with his wife, kid and two passive aggressive cats.

10 Comments on “Death and the City

  • Juno says:

    This is so lovely. Thank you for sharing.

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  • Dawn Marie says:

    beautiful, thank you

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  • Andrew says:

    A very heartfelt statement indeed. But why imply ridicule at those who believe in an differently than you do? For many, the burning of the temple represents a communication with those who passed before; a way to reach across the chasm to those we knew and hold dear. Your words were very compelling and meaninful, but the spirit of Burning Man should accept that we all believe a little different. Isn’t that respect among our community refreshing? I hope to run into you on the playa and share a beverage or 2.

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  • Bryan says:

    Nicely put.
    Thanx for the write up.
    Those deep conversations, Temple and waning of burning man is super meaningful to me.
    I feel a huge loss.
    I had a good conversation with Larry opening night at the man.
    My first and last talk with him.
    I feel honored, and grateful for that moment.
    Thanks larry for this gift to us all.

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  • Pooh Bear says:

    Beautifully written but containing a typical misunderstanding of what religion is. Science didn’t replace religion, science IS religion. Religion isn’t joining a club or buying afterlife insurance, it is simply seeking to understand our connection to the whole. The practice of mysticism doesn’t replace what science has taught us, it fills in the gaps of where science can’t go at this time. Where is Larry? Gone? Transformed? Science does not have an answer at this time. It is this mystery many of us celebrate at the temple burn.

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    • E. T. Hood says:

      Well said, thank you for your perspective . There is no place for passing judgment regarding the spiritual world that we share. If you’ve been to the mountaintop, you may well have seen a different valley beyond. For those grounded in science, as I am, it is deeply fulfilling to recognize another realm, respect the Spirit world and learn to speak another language in order to communicate. I was raised with Catholicism, that was my roadmap and I went off the trail, alone. There will be no mourning, just love.

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  • Playa Daisy says:

    Well said. I just lost someone dear to me, and this helps more than you know. Your comment about the faithless carrying the fullness of death really resonates with me. I feel as though I can make more sense of things now. Thank you.


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  • Paulah May says:

    The temple is why I go. The temple is where I find my truest connection to people and to the divine. I brought my mothers ashes to temple with the blessings of my very non-burner family because they believed in the reverence it held for me. And when we sat and watched video together of the temple burn with my handmade memorial to my mother inside, despite the fact that we were assembled in a small room watching a moment that had passed on a small pc screen on any old normal day in the normal world – my family wept with me at the beauty and the magnitude of the moment which reached them across time and space – and they understood how huge this ritual was and why it meant so much to me to honor my mother there. I don’t think most folks who haven’t experienced temple or the burn would completely understand – especially given the dismissive attitude surrounding burning man in popular culture – it truly is regarded as a huge rave and heathenistic drug fueled party – which for some I have no doubt is all that it is. But the temple. The temple is fire magic, the temple is transformative , the temple is as close to God as I personally have ever been. To stand in a circle of tens of thousands of people and have that moment of collective reflection – to hear the nothing – the sound of perhaps 50,000 individuals all holding their breath in a single moment … that is as big a church as I’ve ever attended and my life would not be as full nor meaningful without it.
    Temple IS church. Temple IS humanity. Temple IS transcendence. Temple IS spiritual beings experiencing being human. Temple IS God walking among us.
    For me, Temple is an invitation to spend an evening in God’s house.
    Thank you all for bringing temple to life from the heart and for bringing temple to life within my heart.
    Without Temple, burning man for me really is just a big party in the desert. With temple, burning man is Home. My home. my God’s home. And Home to anyone who seeks to come home.
    I dearly hope that when I pass there is still a blazing temple in the desert and at least one single remaining soul who will have loved me enough to take me there.
    My gratitude to all who have made the temple happen- it is the most pure part of who I am that enters and leaves the temple burn.

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  • Ripple says:

    Beautifully written…

    And the Temple, while memorializing the death of those who pass, celebrates life and energy… Capturing the immediacy of our spiritual self… temporal only in the context of our human experience, timeless by nature.

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