What do the ashes on Ash Wednesday actually represent?

Today, February 26th, is Ash Wednesday, an ancient religious holiday that, for Catholics, is one of the holiest days of the year. Ash Wednesday is known for the ash crosses spotted on foreheads throughout the day, but how many people know what the ashes actually represent?

Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, which, according to the religion, is the 40 days of preparing for Jesus to be resurrected up until Easter Sunday. Lent is a time for reflection and penitence, and often a time for sacrifice—this is why Catholics don’t eat meat on Ash Wednesday or on Fridays throughout Lent. It’s also common for observers to give up something they love for the entirety of Lent.

Of course, Ash Wednesday is best known for, well, the ashes that come along with it. For those who didn’t learn about the history of the holiday, it can be really confusing (even people who are Catholic and get their ashes on Ash Wednesday might not know exactly why they’re getting them).

The ashes are representative of dust, or more specifically, the dust of a human corpse.

As a human corpse decomposes, it turns to dust, or ash. The ashes placed on one’s forehead are a symbol of that. As the priest applies them in a cross formation on someone’s forehead, they will say either, “Turn away from sin and believe in the Gospel” or “Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”

If you’re thinking this sounds incredibly morbid and depressing, you aren’t exactly wrong. But the Catholic religion doesn’t see it this way. This is part of Lent, preparing for death.

The Catholic Spirit explains it further:

"For example, Abraham told God, 'I am but dust and ashes' (Genesis 18:27), a reference to his human mortality. Jeremiah described death as a 'valley of corpses and ashes' (Jeremiah 31:40). Ashes are an ominous sign, and we use them on Ash Wednesday to remind ourselves of our own impending deaths. Death may come sooner, or it may come later, but it will surely come."

Of course, the ashes aren’t actually dust from a human corpse (that would be horrifying). They come from the palms of Palm Sunday from the previous year. The palms are burned, then the ashes are collected and crushed into a fine powder. During Ash Wednesday mass, the priest will bless the ashes before applying them to the foreheads of everyone in the church.

So next time you see ashes on someone’s forehead, or if you get them yourself, consider their real purpose: to remind you that life is, according to the Catholic faith, all about preparing to die, to be with God. Kind of morbid, but also a very important part of this religion.