Monday, May 28, 2007

Burning Man, the Temple, and Memorial Day

Since today is Memorial Day in the United States I thought I would use the occasion of the holiday to post some thoughts related to its meaning related to death, its memorialization, and the grief process. As I make this post I do so in light of my experiences with the Burning Man intentional community with the idea that this event and community has something meaningful for us to consider.

One of the more interesting features of Burning Man is a placed called the Temple. This structure provides a places where people can write down and create their own memorials to friends, family, and loved ones who have died. At the conclusion of the festival the temple is burned, and this action is often associated with people weeping and experiencing a great sense of catharsis. During my participation in Burning Man in 2006 the Temple was very moving, both because of the quiet and somber experiences of those around me as they remembered the dead, but also because it provided a time for me to grieve the loss of my young son Jacob.

As part of my continued reflection on Burning Man I recently posted a few questions on their e-Playa discussion board, including a question as to whether and how Burning Man might function as a spirituality for some participants. One of the respondents posted his thoughts that touched on the Temple:

"I think it's interesting to see just how intense the Temple burns can be. I've always had this personal belief that culturally we really don't ritualize grief all that much. It tends to be a very personal thing and traditional avenues such as churches often tend to sanitize it. To hear more than a few people in the crowd keening, yelling, crying and openly weeping suggests to me that there is a touch stone of sorts for a lot of people who've not really been able to tap into the more primal aspects of processing loss and coming to terms with it."

This Burner recognizes something that scholars have touched on as well.. For example, Sarah Pike says that this mourning process at Burning Man is "a substitute for failed rites of passage in the outside world, healing emotions left behind after more traditional death rites were completed." The resonance of such ritual and communal acts of memorialization at Burning Man may point out a deficit in the ways in which we deal with death in the West. Earlier in her discussion Pike discusses the process of mourning in "industrialized, secularized societies" and she states that, "Instead of shared communal rites most Westerners are left with 'the invisible death: a biological transition without significance, pain, suffering, or fear.'"

Is it possible that the activities at the Temple at Burning Man illustrate yet another cultural and spiritual lesson to be learned from this intentional community? Perhaps it also points out yet another "unpaid bill of the church" in our failures to adequately respond to death as we live our lives in its constant shadow.


nic paton said...

Failed Rites of passage, Unpaid bills of the church... I wholeheartedly intuit these thoughts.

John, this is the last writ on the wonderful list you have provided in response to Afrika Burns.

I would like to know how you put some of this stuff into practice...
What for example might be a rite of passage to deal with grief in the ecclesia, or indeed in western society at large?

For my contribution see

John W. Morehead said...

Nic, thanks for this comment, and the many others you have posted in response to my reflections on Burning Man. I'm hopeful that others connected with Afrika Burns found value in my thoughts.

This particular topic is near and dear to me. As to what a specific example might be, I would love to see a daring church community find a space where they can receive permission from a city to engage in a burn periodically through the year. Some kind of transitory temple-like structures could be created on the space where people could write poems and words of grief that would be interactive and ritualistic, as well as serve as a place for grief and meditation. This structure would then be burned, perhaps on a semi-annual basis, and serve the function that it does on Burning Man. I believe this would be very powerful and would serve to connect an ekklesia community to aspects of the broader culture.

Beyond this you will note at the bottom of my post on this topic that I have linked this post to another one I did more recently when I addressed the Dumb Supper and Mourning Tee at the Festival of the Dead in Salem. What about ekklesia communities recontextualizing their own Festival of the Dead and including such elements? Again, I think these would be very powerful. I hope to be able to experiment with such things with others who think outside the box in the near future.