Dust to dust: mourning the dead at Burning Man

One of the biggest parties on earth isnt just about having a goodtime. Many come to Burning Man to grieve and inter the ashes of loved ones

Tony Edwards, a long-term Burning Man attendee, spent last Thursday observing his sixth wedding anniversary at the festivals temple. He was also returning the ashes of his late wife, Laura Diamond, to the place where they had exchanged their marital vows.

A mother of four grown children, Laura or Diamond Cutter as she was known at the festival began coming to Burning Man in her 40s and met Tony there in 2009. She co-founded one of Burning Mans hundreds of theme camps, Que Viva a racial and social justice camp.

Laura cared deeply about diversity and expended a huge amount of effort to increase it. I had the honor of exchanging Facebook messages with her about these topics early last October. The following day, Tony and Laura were in a vehicle collision while riding a moped in Los Angeles, which left Tony injured and Laura dead. She was 54 years old.

Tony moved in with a fellow burner as he mourned. And when the time came to decide what to do with his wifes ashes, Tony knew he would honor their promise that if one of us went, we would take the other back to Burning Man. And so, at the beginning of last week, he placed Lauras ashes on an altar in Que Viva camps dining tent; and on Thursday, led a procession to inter Laura at the Burning Man temple.

It is not unusual for people at Burning Man to memorialise their loved ones at the festival. Though its perhaps much more known for all-night raves and some of the largest art installations in the world, Burning Man also sees people conduct the most meaningful ceremonies of life and death. Indeed, since its first temple was built by artist David Best, burners have flocked here to get married, as Tony and Laura did and theyve also adorned the temples walls with names, elaborate shrines and even the ashes of the deceased.

Then, they remember their loved ones throughout the week, and watch on the last night of the festival as the temple is burned to the ground in silence.

Participants
Participants watch the Temple Project burn on Sunday night. Photograph: Jim Urquhart/Reuters

Building the temple

Death is rarely far from the minds of many people at Burning Man. The back of your ticket explicitly warns that you hereby assume all risk of injury or death arising from the operation of art installations, theme camps or vehicles (including mutant vehicles or art cars). Its not unusual for there to be a death in Black Rock City in any given year just as a death happening in the course of a week in the life of any city of 70,000 people is nothing unusual.

It was death by suicide which inspired artist Best to create Burning Mans first temple around the year 2000. I knew that if youre a Jew or a Catholic you couldnt be buried in a cemetery if you took your own life, Best told me. When I built the temple, my intention was to make it for someone who had taken their own life. Rather than being ashamed of that, you could celebrate and honor [the person who had died].

That first year, Best thought 500 people would write names of dead loved ones on its walls, but 10,000 people wrote names on it. It became a tradition. They didnt just write the names of people who took their own lives: The next year, people came and brought pictures, ashes, combat boots. That was how it started.

Participants

Participants hug at the Temple Project. Photograph: Jim Urquhart/Reuters
Best talks to me on a scorching hot afternoon a few days before the festivals gates open to the public. He is spraying a pungent vinegar finishing solution onto a portion of the massive multistorey building about to be lifted by a crane, while a crew of about 100 volunteers work feverishly to open it as soon as possible.

When they stop for lunch, Best says that mourning is different at Burning Man because theres an understanding and an awareness that is different than the outside world. One year I saw a man in a tutu, with a tie-dyed Grateful Dead T-shirt on and a fluorescent orange wig weeping at the temple. He wouldnt have been allowed in a mortuary.

The intensity of the festival also leads some to grieve. You get your ass kicked, youre exhausted and your barriers are down. After a week youve lost the keys to your RV, youre not packed, youve drank too much, or your girlfriend or boyfriend has broken up with you. Youve got cracked feet walking on the playa. So you come to the temple and youre stripped. Youre able to cry, youre able to reflect on some things.

While we were eating, a member of the build crew brings a woman named Helen Hickman up to Best with a piece of wood which has been colorfully decorated with images and words about her mother. It is to be placed in the temple to be burned.

Elena

Elena Meseck writes the name of a loved one at the temple. Photograph: Jim Urquhart/Reuters
This is not a skull and ashes or a bronze casket, he says. This is a celebration of someones life a healing grief, a different grief than one which is capitalised for monetary gain from a mortician.

Best stands up to give an impromptu speech his to his crew: Someone brought us something to put in the Temple: Mom, not a day goes by when we dont miss your smile, laugh and guidance as our beautiful mother. His voice begins to crack.

I put a lot of pressure on you all to take something very painful in your life and to turn it into something beautiful, right? You can take that loss as the most hideous, painful thing in your life, but you have to carry that around. I dont want you to carry something hideous with you. I want you to carry the joy of that person in your life, for a moment. Best says he wants the crew to understand they are constructing a space where visitors could reflect on how their grief is what makes you beautiful. Its not ugly its tragic, but its not ugly.

Best regularly forgets the names of the people who work closest to him, but can recall the life stories strangers tell him about their deceased loved ones. Once his temples are finished, he spends time in them talking to mourners.

And when Tony Edwards came with a portrait of Laura, Best helped him to place it on the eastern side, so shed see the sun rising, which she loved. The picture is in a gold frame inscribed with the words Mother. Wife. Artist. Force of Nature. Burner.

Laura

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figcaption class=”caption” caption–img caption caption–img” itemprop=”description”> Laura Diamond, whose ashes were interred at Burning Man on Sunday. Photograph: Courtesy of Tony Edwards

From Bowie to Orlando

Its a challenge to construct an intricate building in a desert with high winds and dust storms. Bests temple didnt open until Tuesday evening, two days later than planned, meaning its lifespan would only be about four days until it is consumed in flames.

Within hours of opening, it is immediately covered with remembrances of the dead. There are elaborate poster board displays of mothers and lovers alongside detailed photo essays and paintings. There are rainbow flags and Nepalese prayer flag, irreverent reactions to death (Fuck meth!) and compassionate messages about those who took their own lives (its not your fault). There are lots of tributes to Prince and David Bowie and a cardboard cutout of R2-D2 to remember actor Kenny Baker.

Someone has left 49 notebooks called the Colourful Souls project each one adorned with the faces of one of the Orlando shooting victims. There are too many photos of pets to count. Physical ephermera from the dead dot the temples surfaces, too pages of diaries and a knit Santa Claus doll are affixed to the walls alongside statues of Buddha, a pair of eyeglasses, bottles of Jack Daniels, entire wedding dresses, urns of human remains and a pair of mens briefs which have the words I release you written across the fly.

These reliquaries of the dead reflect sex, humor, grief and love; they are nothing like the flowers and tombstones one would see in a cemetery.

These
These reliquaries of the dead reflect sex, humor, grief and love; they are nothing like the flowers and tombstones one would see in a cemetery. Photograph: Jim Urquhart/Reuters
When I first visit, sounds of chanting fill the air. But its Burning Man, so the soundscape changes all the time and includes everything from a passing art car blasting bass to the 80-piece Playa Pops Orchestra playing Beethovens Ode to Joy. But perhaps the most constant soundtrack is of people breaking down in tears from a man who looks like he just wandered off the set of Mad Max to a woman in a bunny suit.

Matters of life and death

Que Viva means to life in Spanish, and the camp is a vivaciously joyous space, as a refuge for people of color at Burning Man. But it is also a place of grieving for many of the campers, who lost their co-founder Laura, and for the camp director, Favianna Rodriguez, whose father died recently.

For me, Burning Man represents the ability to be full human beings, Favianna tells me, emphasising that mourning is a part of the human experience. The camp is home to two altars which honor the dead and which have elements of Da de los Muertos, the Mexican day of the dead. One altar is dedicated to Laura, the other to victims of police killing.

What I appreciate about day of the dead as a tradition is it sets a time to mourn, which is important part of our health Favianna tells me. Its a way of being with death while mocking it with colorful flowers, skeletons and leaving joyful gifts to the deceased and includes collective mourning for atrocities committed against people.

Mourner
Mourner Danicorn Hlavinka cries at the Temple Project. Photograph: Jim Urquhart/Reuters

This collective grief is addressed by the altar which sits beneath a large Black Lives Matter banner. In front of it were drawings by artist Oree Originol of Islan Nettles, Sandra Bland and Alex Nieto. On top of it were two massive binders with almost 700 printouts from the Guardians The Counted project each page dedicated to someone killed by American police in 2016.

When I was printing out each page, and seeing each person I was remembering this persons life, Favianna says. They are not forgotten.

Burners who stopped at the altar are encouraged to write a letter to some of the families of those killed so their families would know they werent forgotten, Favianna said, having found comfort in receiving letters after her father died.

Lauras journey home

On Thursday evening, with his wife Lauras ashes in a tall urn, Tony Edwards led the Que Viva camp from their home base onto the cock car, a peacock-shaped art car he and his wife had helped to build. A few of his campmates rode bicycles alongside the enormous two-storey car decked out with feathers.

The mood was both celebratory and somber. Tony and Laura had gotten married exactly six years before on this very car, next to the Burning Man temple. As it drove across the playa, Love is in the Air played from its loudspeakers a song also played on their wedding day. The car was swarmed by camp-mates on bicycles, like dolphins guiding a ship out to sea.

As we rode towards his wifes final resting place, I asked Tony about how theyd met. Apparently, Im not good at picking up women, or the signals they are sending, he said. She was across the street just watching me, and she said something like, Do I have to tell you come over here and talk to me? He smiled, holding her ashes.

People
People gather at the Temple Project. Photograph: Jim Urquhart/Reuters

It was dusk when the cock car car arrived at the temple, the nearby mountains rimmed with golden sunlight as the sky settled into gentle shades of pink and purple, and a warm breeze rose. By now, the volume of names adorning the temple was overwhelming. Tony and Favianna carefully placed Lauras ashes beneath her portrait, and also placed a number of her personal affects and more photos around her remains, surrounded by campers from Que Viva. Then Tony began to take some pictures of the pictures, as his photographer friend took photos of him taking them a memory of a memory of a memory of the woman he loved.

Tears trickled down his face as he began to speak. She was my best friend and a wonderful mother to four great kids, and she graduated from UCLA last year. Burning Man had been the spark that ignited her for the last years of her life, when she really just blossomed. She worked with many of you to make tickets to Burning Man available to artists of color. She had made a one-woman show about Burning Man at UCLA.

Three weddings happened within earshot as people remembered Laura, punctuating our tears with cheers of celebration.

When she left the house, wed say to each other, Kiss me in case I never see you again, Tony said near the end of the service. We dont know how much time that we have. So love the ones you love and tell them you love them all the fucking time, and that way when they leave, youll know you did your best. And we did our best.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2016/sep/05/burning-man-temple-project-death-mourning

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