We at Martin Oaks Crematory and Cemetery are accustomed to answering all manner of questions about cremation, especially at this time of year. With Ash Wednesday rapidly approaching, we almost always are queried about ashes.
Ash Wednesday is the day Christians have ashes applied to their foreheads in the shape of the cross; at the same time, they are verbally reminded that they will someday return to dust with the admonition that it is a wise time to repent.
In discussing this rite, let us make it clear that Martin Oaks advocates no religious position of any kind, including those of non-belief. We are merely performing an informative function here.
At any rate, back to the sources of ashes. These are obtained by burning palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday masses; they are used for distribution on Ash Wednesday. The ashes are not the result of any cremation, nor are they cremains of any type.
The context in the church as to when the ashes are distributed is associated with either a Catholic Mass or a service called the Liturgy of the Word (several readings plus a homily).
It has been our experience that these services are exceptionally well attended; not perhaps as well as Christmas or Easter services, but attracting more participants than many feast days which occur throughout the year.
On the ironic side, this is one Christian holiday which has not been commercialized in the slightest.
Christmas and Easter have broad commercial appeal — St. Valentine’s Day (which falls on the same day as Ash Wednesday this year, more on this shortly) also is now associated with economic factors.
Since Ash Wednesday is all about repentance — fasting, abstaining from meat, recognizing our own mortality — there is absolutely no business connection available. In fact, if anything, Christians are encouraged to go home with their families in a reflective spirit.
There is a lot of confusion about the terms fasting and abstinence. As currently defined by the Catholic Church, to fast means that between certain ages, one is only allowed to have two small meals and one larger meal. Abstinence is refraining from eating meat. There are some Catholics who are exempted from these rules, the exemption based on factors such as age and condition of health. The purpose of fasting and abstaining is aimed at performing a penance, focusing one’s attention on the fasting Christ did.
We are also asked about what happens to the ashes following the church service. This is a matter of personal preference. Some continue to wear them the rest of the day, while others are most comfortable removing them fairly quickly.
The Beginning of Ash Wednesday
Ash Wednesday is the kickoff of Lent, the six weeks prior to Easter. As a church rite, Ash Wednesday has origins that trace back to biblical times, where the donning of a sackcloth and ashes was considered penance. As a church practice, it dates back at least to the 10th century.
In recent years, people have taken to the streets to distribute the ashes — this is a practice associated with certain Christian denominations, but not a Catholic ritual.
The period of Lent includes fasting and abstinence on Fridays, encouragement to go to confession and other specific rites which occur during Holy Week, the time period directly prior to Easter Sunday.
Valentine’s Day has few roots in Christianity other than it is celebrated on a feast day. Actually, there were several Valentines who were Christian martyrs. Some scholars suggest that the February 15 Roman festival may be the true point of origination, but there is debate on this subject.
The manner in which we commemorate this holiday are largely based on commercial considerations — sending cards, at least in the United States, goes back to the 19th century (several hundred million are now purchased).
When Ash Wednesday and St. Valentine’s Day land on the same date, is there a conflict in behavioral norms? Catholics are urged to celebrate St. Valentine’s Day on another date, usually the following weekend, but presents and cards are exchanged nonetheless. It is estimated that the average Valentine purchase now exceeds $100.
Martin Oaks wishes everyone a happy Valentine’s Day as well as meaningful Ash Wednesday.