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Death and the City

This article originally appeard in the Bourning Man Journal June 18, 2018 https://journal.burningman.org/2018/06/opinion/serious-stuff/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.



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