Ashes to ashes, and to the ground

By Shaun Johnson | The Compass | February 11, 2021


“What do they do with leftover ashes after Ash Wednesday?  There always seem to be a lot of them.” — Green Bay


Soon we will celebrate Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of our Lenten journey. But, for some of us, it may seem like we have been in a sort of long Lent because the pandemic never fully allowed us to celebrate Easter as a community.

As we approach Ash Wednesday and Lent, many have raised questions about what Lent will look like, especially as we approach this season in a world still suffering from COVID-19.  Having served now for a little over a year in my role in the Office of Divine Worship, much of our efforts have been to help our parishes to best protect the faithful from the unpredictable consequences of this disease, while maintaining opportunities to encounter Christ in the liturgy and prayer of the Church. As Bishop David Ricken has courageously guided us along the way, we move forward with “prudent action and bold faith.”

We are approaching a year now since our parishes were first closed for the public celebration of the Mass, and the whole world strangely and abruptly shut down. But, as we know of the kerygma (the proclamation of the Gospel,) which we are all called to share with those we encounter, the Christian story — our story — is one of suffering, dying, and rising in Christ. We, too, will rise from the ashes of 2020. This is our “bold faith:” that Christ will reign victorious.  Though sometimes we cannot see how, and we might not be able to understand or know when, we know that Jesus has and will continue to conquer sin and death — the very things which the ashes we brandish during the beginning of our Lenten journey represent.

So, all of this to answer a somewhat simple question: “What do we do with the ashes that are left over after Ash Wednesday?”

The simple answer is that they can be buried in a sacred place, if they have been used. Back to Bishop Ricken’s call to “prudent action;” if ashes are left over from a container that has been used during the distribution of ashes, these should not be reused, but buried in a sacred place.

However, if we “overbought” or have left over ashes that we never used for distribution of ashes during an Ash Wednesday Mass or celebration, those ashes may be re-used next year, because they really do not have a shelf-life per se.

It is not advised to use the sacrarium — a special sink in the sacristy that goes directly into the ground — to dispose of ashes because it may clog the sacrarium.  This is the same advice given in regard to the proper disposal of Holy Oils which are disposed of when a parish receives the newly blessed and consecrated oils each year. Holy oil is generally burned to dispose of it.


Johnson is Divine Worship Director for the Diocese of Green Bay.


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