How to Make Ashes

Every year, I enjoy the ritual of transforming last year’s palms into ashes. This year, I posted something about this ritual on Facebook which spurred a series of responses from some dear clergy friends who had little success in making ashes. So, this is my attempt to come to the rescue of my dear friends.

First and foremost, do not attempt to perform this ritual inside the church. Do not attempt this in your home. Do not enclose yourself in any interior space. Please, go outside. Your lungs will thank you. Before you go outside, make sure you gather your supplies. Every ritual has its required elements. So, for this particular rite, you’ll need:

  • The leftover eco-palms from last year*
  • Bulletins from last Sunday
  • Catalog that one might use to order ashes (or other glossy paper)
  • A large coffee can
  • Matches

Once outside, far from a building and preferably not on grass, rip up those bulletins and the catalog. It’ll burn easier if you give it a little breathing room. I don’t understand why that is but it’s something I’ve learned over the years. I use these extra paper items because it gives you more ashes. There’s also the added benefit that it gives another hue to the ashes. The palms themselves create whispy ashes that are hard to get on your finger — which is kinda required for the imposition of ashes — and the paper helps to give it a little umph. Put the ripped paper in the coffee can and light it on fire.

Here’s where you might singe your eyebrows so please be careful. When the flames really get going, and you feel a little bit like a pyromaniac, that’s when you start adding the palms. Gather a bunch in your palm. Place them into the can so they start to catch the flame. Let go, silly. They will not catch fire easily or rapidly. It’ll probably just smoke for a while. It will take some time before flames start to fly but there’s no need to risk it. You do not need to become dust in this ritual. Get it all burned. It will still be smoldering and the can is hot. So please be careful. If you live in Maine, like I do, throw some snow on top and this will cool off the fire sooner.

Now, you can bring your can of ashes back inside. You’re going to want to mash them up a little bit because there will be chunks of paper and palms. That’s not going to glide on anyone’s forehead easily. Amazingly, you’re still not done though. Spoon some out into a small bowl (the one that you’ll use for the imposition of ashes) and stir in some olive oil to make a paste. You don’t want it to be too gooey but there’s no science to this. Mix it until it looks right to you which may require using more ashes from your stash from the coffee can. Who are you kidding? It definitely will.

As another friend on Facebook said, it’s lovely to think that you might find this ritual to be deeply spiritual with intense prayer but you may find that you’re more worried about not burning down the church. I think this fits the ritual too. It’s so human — and in the end, you’ve made ashes so that like Job you too can “relent and find comfort in dust and ashes” (42:6).

*Mysteriously, the palms pictured above are not eco-palms. The church I serve stopped ordering these palms two (or three?) years ago. Still, we had them in mass supply in the sacristy. I can’t explain this. It’s a Lenten mystery.

In this middle of the pandemic, I wrote a liturgy to share this practice at home in family groups. There’s free downloadable liturgy you’re welcome to share with your faith community over on Ash Wednesday in Coronatide.

5 thoughts on “How to Make Ashes

  1. Elsa, you are amazing and a lifesaver! Martha referred me to this post when I frantically google chatted her with questions about the ashes, and I am off to mix them with olive oil right now! Thank you, thank you, thank you! (And so sweetly written, too!)


  2. I've never added the oil, there's usually enough oil on people's foreheads that the ashes stick well enough on their own! And the last few years, I've done this with the kids form church, they write or draw a sin for which they are sorry, these are torn up and burned as a symbol that God has forgiven them, along with the palms.


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