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(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Flames engulf The Burning Man Saturday night, Sept. 1, 2012, during Burning Man 2012 in the Black Rock Desert, Nev.
The Church of Burning Man: Counterculture spirituality
Burning Man Festival » Spirituality exists amid the flames of the counterculture and harks back to early Christianity.
First Published Sep 07 2012 10:21 am • Last Updated Sep 10 2012 11:05 am

Thousands gathered on a northern Nevada plain last week to watch and cheer as a 70-foot-tall white neon man was burned into extinction, amid raucous music, dancing and fireworks.

The annual Burning Man festival ended the next day with another ritual blaze: the destruction of a temporary temple, filled with photos and written memories of loved ones, pets, failed relationships, troubled pasts, old ideas and profound emotions hastily scrawled on pieces of paper, wood, cloth and cardboard. Some expressed anguish with words like "my life sucks." A woman hung up her wedding dress.

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Pagan Pride Day

Salt Lake Pagan Pride will hold its annual Pagan Pride Day at Murray Park Pavilions 1, 2 and 3 on Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. There will be music and booths. For admission, bring a nonperishable food item to donate for The Road Home. Visit www.saltlakeppd.org for information.

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Unlike the previous night, the Sunday temple fire was quiet and reverential for the more than 60,000 seated on the ground.

It wasn’t just about letting go of cherished family and friends, says Kent Frogley, a Salt Lake City marketing consultant who calls himself an "emeritus Mormon," but about how death transforms relationships.

Why build something so beautiful each year and then torch it?

"It’s a deliberate statement about life’s transitory nature," explains Frogley, who posted his mother’s name and 1996 death date in last year’s temple, "and the human proclivity to hang onto things."

For him and many others, Burning Man is a spiritual experience unlike any in traditional churches. It fills a hunger for unconventional spirituality and rituals, freed from churchy institutions and limits.

That is not how most outsiders view the weeklong confab.

Many see Burning Man as a drug-filled haze of hedonism — long on self-expression and exhibitionism, short on morals and restraint. Some Christian pastors have condemned it as a "tool of Satan."

Indeed, satanic revelry may be the appeal for some devotees, but others go there looking for their better natures. Either way, the gathering has tapped into a need and continues to swell.

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Birth of a movement » In 1986, Larry Harvey and Jerry James burned an 8-foot wooden man on Baker Beach in San Francisco as a celebration of the summer solstice.

A couple of dozen onlookers seemed to relish the moment and urged the duo to make it an annual event, writes John Morehead, director of Utah’s Western Institute for Intercultural Studies, who wrote a master’s thesis on Burning Man for the now-defunct Salt Lake Theological Seminary.

The size of the man began to grow along with the number of followers.

Two years later, the experience became known as Burning Man and began to lure self-described free spirits from all over the Bay Area. Soon, it attracted about 800 participants.

In 1993, it took place during Labor Day week, moved to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert 120 miles north of Reno and, Morehead writes, "become an experiment in intentional community."

This "Black Rock City" is based on 10 principles: "radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation and immediacy."

Participants provide all their own needs, including food, bedding, tents, first aid and anything required for art installations. No money is exchanged and nothing is for sale, other than coffee and ice, so participants have developed a "gifting economy" in which people give one another objects or services that they need, with no expectation of payment or exchange.

Since attendance has mushroomed to tens of thousands, organizers say they have to charge a hefty fee — $250 to $400 apiece to pay for Porta-Potties, land-use fees and website maintenance, among other costs.

They also established a theme for each gathering, including Time, Hell, Outer Space, the Body, The Floating World, Beyond Belief, Vault of Heaven, Psyche, Hope and Fear, the Green Man, the American Dream, Evolution and Metropolis.

This year’s theme was Fertility 2.0, the website says, and the temple was named for Juno, the Roman goddess "who was a fertility deity and overseer of childbirth, a protectress of women and the community, and a preserver of marriages."

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