Vote Charlie!

The ultimate burn

Posted at age 25.
Created . Edited .

I went Saturday with Brad and Matt to check out the temple. Despite being told I had to spend some time there, I did not know what to expect, how it might affect me or what people even do there. I had a vague idea it was some sort of tribute. That’s about it.

When we first approached, I immediately noticed all sorts of trinkets and photos and other relics placed everywhere within reach. The temple was nearly saturated with items and messages. This was very interesting, and it became obvious the temple is important for many people.


The Temple of Whollyness

Getting closer, I observed a mixture of people. Some were simply observing, as I was at that point. The observers mostly walked around, though some sat or stood in place, but still watching others. There were also many meditators sitting outside, and I would later find many more inside. And then, there were those leaving a mark. These were generally the most emotional of the types, but strong emotions did crop up even among mere observers. And I am sure I was not alone in thinking I would only be an observer but turning out to be wrong.

The atmosphere was quiet, with the playa’s distant goings on barely audible over the wind and the sobbing. All around, sniffles, and every few minutes a less contained but still self conscious cry into a friends’ arms or just the person’s own hand. But occasionally, a cathartic howl echoed throughout the structure.

Multiple times I saw apparent strangers comfort each other as they tried to hold it together. And those times are when I started to lose it.

Hundreds gathered in worship, remembrance and meditation all week at the Temple of Whollyness

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Even among the sadness, there were still smiles to be had. I loved when I would sort of suddenly remember I am in the middle of the desert and people out here are all dealing with the elements in a way you don’t usually have to back in the regular world. Here it is normal for a person you don’t know to approach you with a large bottle and squirt you in the face with water. And it is appreciated.


But we are still in the scorching desert.

But the smiles never lasted very long. It wasn’t exactly like the “Do I smile in this photo of me and the 9-11 memorial?” thought, but more like “People are crying here. People are losing it.” And yet I couldn’t leave. I wanted to stay, reading all the messages and watching how people interact with each other and with the temple.

Reading the messages, I understood how this was a place that served many purposes.

Primarily the temple was a bridge to the hereafter, where many people paid tribute to their departed friends and family. From little messages to cards and photos and keepsakes to large sculpture tributes, burners have many creative ways to honor the dead.

There was more to this place, though. It also seemed to function as an outlet for emotions we no longer manage together as a society. This was apparent through reading just a small sample of the temple’s faces.

Some people released years of tension in their lives, apologizing for being a horrible father, forgiving a sibling for habitual abuse, or vowing to be a more sensitive friend. Some wrote inspiring messages and some asked questions, from personal to universal. “How do I be there for my son when he makes me so upset with his life choices?” “How can human kind achieve peace?” “Are we alone?” “Why me?”

The Temple of Whollyness Saturday was packed with written messages, regrets, hopes and salutations and piled high with relics of the departed.

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I did not walk away with dry eyes, but I did pretty well. Brad and Matt did OK, too. Though time is rarely a concern on the playa, we did have to get back to camp soon to prepare for the night ahead, which featured the big burn of The Man. Then most of our camp was packing up the next day to leave before the temple burn.


Big Girtha is packing up Sunday


Danny managing the truck organization

Originally, Mike, Brad, Joey and I planned to leave Monday morning, so that was my expectation for the whole week. Only Sunday morning did they tell me they pretty much decided to leave ASAP, before the temple burn and certainly before Monday. Though they at first presented it as something to consider, it was soon clear that I could not dissent without causing a situation.

All week I looked forward to photographing the temple, just as I looked forward to The Man, as it was the last big event of Burning Man, and I did not want to miss the culmination after all the money and preparation for spending a week there. And that was before I knew how the temple would affect me personally. Once I experienced that place Saturday, there was no way I could leave the desert without witnessing what I knew was going to be an extremely powerful moment for thousands of people.

After a little bit of drama, we eventually worked out a compromise where Mike and Joey would go back with Matt, and Brad and I would go back together in the SUV bringing everyone’s supplies. This worked out well, I think, as Mike was not having a great time for a bunch of personal reasons, and I wanted to spend some more time with Brad here since we looked forward to it for so long.

Our half solution, then, was to pack everything into the SUV ahead of the burn, park as close to the exit as possible, and bike over to the Temple. We then would leave right away and hope to beat the rush. It was pretty eerie, actually, to see how many people already left by Sunday evening, and the place was starting to seem even more like a post apocalyptic wasteland. It didn’t help that there were weather warnings of an impending storm scheduled to hit Monday at noon. Radio announcements indicated anyone who hadn’t left by 11 a.m. Monday would be quarantined till the playa completely dried out, presumably days later. So we prepared according to the new plan and waited.


Bahhhhhs being dismantled :-(


Many people departed Sunday afternoon. Brad and I moved the car toward the exit so we could bike to the temple burn and then leave quicker.


Observers head to the Temple of Whollyness 40 minutes before it is to be set ablaze


Final preparations are being made before the temple burns


People start to gather at the burn perimeter, guarded by Black Rock City rangers


Two minutes after 8 and the temple’s lights come on for a last time

People were already much more quiet than ever before, but from the moment of the first signs of fire, silence struck and was punctured by nothing but occasional crying and some communal howls and chants.


The fires start from the outside


Some small flares are set at the top levels, but this is nowhere near the spectacle of The Man burning the day before


Thousands look on in silence as the Temple of Whollyness burns

Greetings and goodbyes, hopes and dreams, regrets and apologies are all sent up to the heavens through being burnt to the Earth. One way or another, everything is but dust in the wind.


Soon not a vestige remains of the tokens and words of thousands of people partaking in this mass catharsis.


Still in relative silence, we then began the journey home.

Entries in this series:

  1. The journey to Burning Man
  2. Lazy days of building mind, body and soul
  3. Radical self expression takes hold
  4. Burning the Man
  5. The ultimate burn