I awoke thinking of ashes.

No, there was not a fire inside or outside the house. I have been asked to speak at a Grief Share conference next month, and I chose the topic, “Grief After COVID.”

In the early days of COVID-19, some communities required cremation as a safety public health step. So, I was thinking about ashes.

In some parts of America, we have been averse to cremation, but during the early days of the pandemic, some were not given a choice.

My first experience with cremation was as a new pastor who was called by the funeral home to do a graveside service for someone who had been sent back to the area. As was my practice, I went by the funeral home to get the details of the person whose graveside service I would officiate.

The office was small, and as I leaned over the huge desk, I pushed aside a box that was in my line of sight. I ask the funeral director what viewing room the deceased had been placed in. He looked at me, smiled and said, “Actually, he is in the box you just moved.”

The man had been cremated and when the funeral home director reached over and picked up the box, it rattled. Nonchalantly, he said, “Don’t think they did a good job of sifting the ashes. Sounds like there’s something in there besides Mr. _________.”

In some way or another, we all end up as ashes. We may build great pyramids, or be laid out in lead-lined coffins, buried without a headstone or cremated, but in the end, we all end in ashes.

This is a common acknowledgement at funerals, with clergy often voicing a variation of a statement from The Book of Common Prayer: “We, therefore, commit this body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life.”

So, knowing that, what happens in our lives between the time we are born and when we become ashes?

Genesis 3:19 puts it precisely, “By the sweat of your brow, you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” What happens between birth and ashes is largely up to us.

During my years of living, I have buried a lot of folks. Rich or poor, church members or not, a violent death or a peaceful passing in one’s sleep, the outcome would be the same: ashes.

I have pastored some fairly wealthy folks and in their generosity, the churches were given parking lots, chimes, wings of new buildings, hymnals, and various and sundry other things. One congregation spent a pretty penny plaquing the gifts, noting the generosity of members.

At some point, it slowly dawned on me that all this stuff— as nice as it was and is— will one day be ashes.

I was serving on a trustee board that gave me the opportunity to encourage some of our more affluent members to consider gifts, which would carry no plaques but could change lives. Some listened and paid for students who could not afford a college education to get a college education.

Some wisdom accumulated in me bubbled up like an old percolator, revealing something so obvious I should have seen it years before: everything we get, make, acquire, achieve, possess, buy and store will stay in this world. The only thing that moves on from this world into the next are people.

In my part of the world, there is a particular and pronounced pattern of life that goes like this: work, acquire, gather, expand, store and then simplify, downsize, throw out, give away, sell, trade or dispose of.

Much of the years of our lives are spent gathering stuff, managing stuff and then pushing stuff out the door. So, a great question to ask is, “What have you done with your life to make a difference in the lives of others?”

What have you given or given up to help ensure folks around you to have enough?

In a world where love is often as rare as water in the desert, what have you done to foster hope with those who struggle to be hopeful?

How have you shared not only the good news of Jesus but demonstrated love and kindness like Jesus?

Because at the end, all become ashes.

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