Hey, Father! What do I do with old blessed palm branches?

I have a few old, dried-up palms from various Palm Sundays. Is there a proper way to dispose of them? I know not to just throw them in the trash. Churches used to collect them right before Lent to burn for ashes for Ash Wednesday, but I haven’t heard of them doing that lately.

Sharon in Springfield

Sharon, thanks for your question. The proper way to dispose of blessed palms from Palm Sunday relates to the way we are to treat all items that are blessed, that is, set aside for sacred and holy use. This includes but is not limited to palms, bibles, rosaries, medals, statues, images, icons, and liturgical items. The Church tells us that “Sacred objects, which are designated for divine worship by dedication or blessing, are to be treated reverently and are not to be employed for profane or inappropriate use even if they are owned by private persons” (Code of Canon Law 1171). While this specifically applies to the things used in the liturgy (the public prayer of the Church), we should also apply the same principle to items that are blessed for private prayers and devotions. So, does that mean that we must keep every single blessed item forever? No.

The practice of the Church has been to dispose of these items in a reverent way when necessary. This can be done in one of two ways. The first is noted by your question. In fact, some parishes do still collect palms before Lent to make ashes, but if yours does not, you may do it yourself. Burning blessed items reverently in a fire is an acceptable way to dispose of flammable blessed items. Just be sure to burn the items completely, even if that means dissembling the item to ensure proper burning of all the parts (like removing the cover of a book and separating pages to make sure they burn). The second is to bury items, especially nonflammable ones, reverently in the ground in a place which will be undisturbed (this does not include landfills or rubbish pits). In fact, I have heard of some religious communities burying blessed items with their community members who have died, filling their coffin with sacred items in need of disposal.

If this sounds familiar, this is the way that human beings have long disposed of physical items that have solemn value. Think of the American flag. In fact, think of the two most common ways our society reverently lays to rest our beloved dead. As Christians, we prefer burial because of our belief in the resurrection of the body. But both burial and cremation are acceptable, provided there is no denial of our belief in the resurrection of the body. This reminds us that along with our palms, rosaries, and other blessed items, we too have been set aside for divine and holy purposes by our baptism and confirmation. We are temples of the Holy Spirit and co-workers in the vineyard of the Lord. We should treat ourselves and live our lives with the reverence and honor that this truth calls us to.

Father Hyland Smith is pastor of St. Michael, Sigel; St. Mary of the Assumption, Neoga; and Sacred Heart Parish, Lillyville.