This week Christians celebrate Ash Wednesday. A few years ago, I pondered ashes on this blog (and I encourage you to read what I wrote then). This year, the fallout from COVID-19 pulls me in somewhat different directions, but the ashes remain central.
Ash Wednesday is intended to focus our attention on our mortality. We all will die, and many of us will return, not just to dust (as scripture teaches) but to ashes. You see, ashes, in the form of cremations, have become increasingly common in America today. In fact, for various reasons (including price and environmental concerns, as well as the flexibility of holding memorial services post-COVID-19), cremation has now surpassed burial as the most popular option for handling the remains of family members.
Does reading that feel gruesome to you? For most of human history, the disposal of human remains wasn’t handed off to strangers, but handled within the family and faith community. Before photography (when only the rich could afford portraits), there weren’t photos on the mantels to remind families of their loved ones. (Interestingly, in the early days of photography, it became fashionable to have photographs taken of the dead to comfort grieving relatives, especially if the family had no other photos available.)
Even today, we keep our loved ones close in various ways. Beyond the ubiquitous photos, I’ve heard of people who kept the ashes of beloved pets on their fireplace mantels. My father-in-law’s ashes lived on my husband’s dresser for a few years because Henry’s parents desired to be buried together (we commingled their ashes after his mother’s death).
That experience, and others, have helped me feel quite comfortable with the idea of my body becoming ashes and even compost for the next generation of living creatures on this earth. (And yes, I’m not discounting the horrific uses to which crematoriums have been put during genocidal times like the Holocaust.) The point for me here is that we will indeed return to dust and ashes, one way or another.
And yes, many more of us are becoming ashes this year, sooner than expected, due to the pandemic. There are seasons in our common life when the idea of Ash Wednesday can be more difficult to embrace than others. While we Christians know the ashes rubbed onto our foreheads come from burned palm branches, we can easily imagine the connection with so much more that is burning in our lives: the bodies of our fellow humans; forests burning because of global warming; trash and scrap wood burning in the homes of the poor, where the pandemic has brought life down to subsistence level; hearts burning as we rage against the losses we cannot change or control.
So, what is burning to ashes in your life these days? What do ashes mean for you, literally and metaphorically, this Ash Wednesday? If you were to mark yourself with ashes this week, where would they come from and what would they represent?