Part III: The Temple

Other things burned as well, of course, and in concept I actually preferred the Temple to the Man. The Temple is another longstanding fixture of Burning Man, since David Best\'s Temple of the Mind in 2000. This year the Temple was called \"Fire of Fires\", and it was an enormous three-story structure with elaborately carved scroll work walls. It was not a theatre piece or a facade, it was a real building that could withstand tens of thousands of pilgrims climbing up and down its stairs all week long.

These pilgrims, myself included, walked the three-quarters of a mile or so across the desert in order to pay tribute to those we had lost, or those burdens we wished to lose. I won\'t go into detail about my own contributions, but I did write a short note to my dear cat Shelly on the wall in magic marker. There were hundreds and hundreds of such inscriptions, ranging from, \"To my Mother, who died ten years ago. I will always remember you.\" all the way to \"Bill, I forgive you\". In addition, people had constructed elaborate shrines for their loved ones. I saw a brass sculpture containing a favorite CD, and on another wall someone had decorated and mounted a guitar, strings and all.

The building was massive, and every time I went I felt myself tearing up--it was undoubtedly the most emotion-laden spot that I have been for a very long time. By the end of the week almost every square inch had been covered in writing and mementos--one person had tacked a dollar bill to the wall, even. Someone else had put up an obituary in which, in lieu of a memorial service, the deceased asked \"to be remembered in your own way\". The Temple was utterly thronged by huge numbers of people at all hours of the day and night, and yet it somehow still managed to convey a peace and a solemnity that was quite moving.

The ceremony to burn it all to ashes was held on Sunday, following the burning of the Man, and it could not have been a more different experience. While the Man burning was a giant party and a celebration, the Temple burning was (in some cases literally) a dirge and a wake. It began as soon as there was silence, and to my astonishment this happened in a few short minutes. This one act impressed me as much as any pyrotechnical display or robotic dragon: take thirty thousand people who have spent a week partying their asses off in the desert, put them all in the same place at once, and get them to remain so quiet that I could hear someone sobbing from a quarter mile away.

Of course it wasn\'t an unbroken silence--one could feel that some folks were a little uncomfortable with the solemnity, and every so often someone would crack a joke, or yell for the hell of it, but for the first half hour or so these were by far the exceptions. Into this environment of quiet, the White Procession marched, a long line of folks wearing white robes and chanting, occaisionally ringing quiet little bells. In the distance I could hear a women wailing, a ceremonial sound of mourning.

There was one gesture of typical Burning Man style flash, but even that managed to fit into the feeling perfectly: in the air, so high that I couldn\'t hear the noise from the airplane, six skydivers jumped out over the temple. Each one was trailing a long torch, and as they spiraled down they looked like shooting stars. This part of the ceremony still brings tears to my eyes as I write about it, I confess.

(Photo by Don Bitters) The actual burn was very straightforward, with none of the buildup and showmanship of the Man. At some point (after, no doubt, thorough safety checks to ensure that the White Procession was well clear) the entire building simply caught fire, and each cutout symbol in the wall was clearly visible, back lit by the enormous fire inside.

To my great dismay, in practice this burn worked less well for me than in theory. I had gotten in a rather heated altercation with a photographer, who thought that because he had a very fancy camera and a tripod, he should be allowed to block the view of everyone behind him. He eventually sat down, but I found myself unable to get over my rage at him. In addition, and occaisionally almost drowning out the chanting, just about every person around me was busy snapping pictures with noisy little digital cameras. The continual noise just seemed so petty and so unnecessary--after all, the temple would look the same in every photo and, being digital, would certainly wind up online before long. But more to the point, for me this was a holy sacrament, the bastards were defiling it, and I couldn\'t relaxing and abandon those feelings. After half an hour or so, while the Temple was well and truly burning, folks began to shout at each other more and more, and I left early, feeling a bit low. This was the final day of Burning Man, so besides the sanctity of the ritual being threatened, I was also dealing with my forthcoming return to the \"Default World\". Not to mention the fact that I\'d been drinking more than I\'d been sleeping for about eight days at that point.

Fortunately, on my way back to my tent I ran into two strangers, who restored my faith in humanity. The first was another person sitting around the Temple, although farther back than I was. As I rushed out of the circle (a circle that must have been twenty rows deep, stretching all the way around the building) I accidentally stepped on this guy\'s hand. I immediately apologized, and he just smiled at me and said, \"Hey, man, we\'re all in this together\". Somehow it was comforting to know that even though I had been unable to put aside my petty feelings of irritation, there were other people who were more than able to do so. The other fellow I ran into was the guy running the bar at Dustfish, who saw me coming and gave me a huge smile (even though I had never seen him before) and started pouring me shots of whiskey with a root beer chaser. The liquor was good, and running into a friend that I had never met before was an even better way to end my time there.