Burying the Torah

Wednesday 9 December 2015 — Homeport: Falmouth Harbor — First human cremation in the USA (Henry Laurens, 1792)

I noticed, dear readers, a recent news report that a Jewish synagogue in New Jersey held a religious ceremony to bury nine Torah scrolls. The Sacred texts were no longer usable due to a devastating fire. 

So, you ask, what is one to do with Catholic religious objects that are no longer usable? We priests get asked this question all the time. The answer is to bury or burn them. It seems simple enough, but it can get complicated. 

This has nothing to do with that strange fad of burying a plastic statue of St. Joseph upside-down in your yard in the hope of selling your house. It’s much more effective to monitor the housing market in your area. 

If the religious object in question isn’t flammable, then just make sure it’s rendered unrecognizable before burial. A plaster statue, for example, can properly be placed in a bag and crushed with a hammer before burial. This is not iconoclastic, since this is done out of respect.

Here on Cape Cod, a priest once could suggest burial of the object, if not in the ground, then in the sea. These days, the latter option is no longer politically correct. It may violate local anti-pollution laws. You don’t want to be fined or, Heaven forbid, arrested by the environmental police on account of your piety. 

One priest I know was approached by a family that was in the process of moving to another residence. They inquired what they might do with no-longer-usable religious objects. The pastor rightly recommended burial of the objects. Problem solved.

A few days later, at dusk, the priest happened to glance out his rectory window and saw a mysterious figure in the shadows behind the building. Instead of calling the police, the priest rushed outside and challenged the intruder. “What are you doing?” the priest boldly demanded. “I’m following your recommendation. I’m burying religious objects.” “In my backyard?” the priest shot back. “Why here?” “Well, because this is holy ground,” came the response. Sometimes one can go overboard in these matters. Do not dig up your pastor’s lawn. Your own backyard is as good a place as any.

In one parish to which I reported for duty, I opened a Sacristy cabinet to find a cache of holy oils. Each vial was carefully marked with the type of holy oil contained therein (there are three types: Sacred Chrism, Oil of the Sick, and Oil of the Catechumens) and with the year of its blessing. The vials were lined up in chronological order stretching back several decades. It was like a cellar for fine wines.

That spring, I burned the blessed oil in the Easter fire. Unfortunately, it proved to be a bit too much of an accelerant. The flames leapt up and singed the deacon’s robe.

At another time, in another Sacristy cabinet, I found baby food jars of blessed ashes lined up in the same way. They were leftovers from years of Ash Wednesdays. I went outside and sprinkled them around the church grounds.

Traditionally, the ashes for Ash Wednesday are made from burning the previous year’s palm branches. They are thus double-blessed. It’s much safer and more convenient to order the Lenten ashes from a religious supply company. They’re very inexpensive and come in neatly sealed Zip-lock bags. 

Every year, I find a few wizened old palm branches stashed in the Missalette racks. People have returned them for recycling. The warranty, it seems, has expired.

What to do with holy water that is no longer usable? Every Sacristy has a sacrarium, a special sink that leads directly to the ground. Just pour the holy water in the sacrarium

Here, a keen-eyed deacon noticed that the plumbing under the sacrarium led not to the ground but to the sewer system, as any normal sink. Seems some contractor had cut corners. As a result, we can’t use our sacrarium for the purpose for which it was intended. We must go outside to pour the holy water into the ground. Even in Falmouth, it still gets pretty cold out there in January. We just grin and bear it. 

People who make donations to various religious foundations sometimes get on a list that’s passed around. As a result, these generous souls are bombarded with solicitations. Often, there’s a token gift involved — a prayer card, a calendar, a medal. What to do with these things? Some parishioners slip into church and stash the objects in the pews, on a table, or in any one of a dozen hiding places. They think the objects must be already blessed. They’re not. 

I’ve even found past editions of The Anchor left anonymously in the church for proper disposal. Although it’s a fine Catholic paper, The Anchor is definitely not a Sacred text. I know because I write for it. 

I feel no compunction whatsoever to inter my outdated copies of The Anchor in the backyard. My column certainly doesn’t require burial — well, not usually.

Anchor columnist Father Goldrick is pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Falmouth.

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