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Burning Names


Compassion and ashes. Each year in the winter cold, I’m invited to our local hospice home for a special event. This invitation always activates a warm gratitude in my chest.


We burn names together.


Hmmmm….let me explain.


Hospice has a Christmas event at one of our malls called Celebrate A Life that includes a Memory Tree. People are invited to write the name of a loved one on a paper ornament and to place the name on the tree.


In a loving and wise decision many years ago, after the holiday season is over and the tree is taken down, the ornaments are not tossed away.



We gather and burn the names on these small pieces of paper and ribbon as sacred rite. I am invited to gather the small circle of staff, to offer some words and to offer a blessing over this holy act. We place the ashes on the garden as nutrient for new life beneath the snow.


I am grateful to Mary who began this practice. She couldn’t bear to see these ornaments just tossed away. She sensed the intention in the ink and paper.


I hesitate to write about this quiet gathering every year and to post this writing. I love simple rites away from view. I respect the love which takes place without recognition… that which is offered without any fanfare or promotion. I cherish all the small and mostly invisible acts of caring that keep the fabric of the world together. Weaved with prayer and intention, they are the tensile strength of community.


And yet, I felt a longing to write a few words and to share something of what I experienced.

I hold great wonder about fire. Burning something- this consuming with fire, this release of light and warmth, and this alchemy of combustion as everything reduces down to essential ash- this has been holy human activity as far back as we know. Burning something as sacred rite transcends any one religion or tradition. We light a candle to recognize a change in consciousness and to help us pray. A fire is stoked and guarded as divine energy. We offer tobacco, or sweetgrass, or the fat of animals- whatever will burn- as an offering. The smoke is waved around us and over us as cleansing: as a way to make a place of a people special… as a preparation for vocation


As we stood on the back patio of the home, we read some of the names aloud. We spoke aloud a few of our own precious names that were not written down. The spoken and the written are one. I light the first piece. The pieces of paper are burning in waves as we toss in a few at a time. They release their stored up sunshine in a small metal bucket: the sacramental vessel. Jenny stirs the ashes with a piece of rebar.


I wonder as the paper burns how the stories on each piece of paper release heat and light into life. I think about the death of my younger brother Darren this year. I also think about my mentor and friend Jim. Darren and Jim are the two most significant losses for me in these past months. Their names burn in my mind. I feel their warmth as I speak aloud just their names. Memories are transformed into a light that flashes up… oh so briefly… like these paper torches in the bucket. I value the residual nutrients of all they have shared and that sustains life.


The fire dies out and we let the bucket cool to touch. The ashes are distributed.


We leave in quiet. As I walk home I can still feel heat on my skin.

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