We often associate the phrase “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” with death. That’s because it comes from the burial rites in the Book of Common Prayer. This collection of prayer books is used mostly in the Anglican church for communion, marriages and other Christian rites — including burial services and cremations. But a closer look at what “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” means actually reveals a hopeful message about life.
This phrase spotlights two important truths in Christianity.
At Compassion, as we serve in Jesus’ name, we talk a lot about hope. We believe that children who live in poverty — as well as their sponsors and the church workers who serve them — must put their hope in the eternal and remember that their suffering on earth is temporary. Recognizing this, we work to alleviate as much earthly suffering as we can and help children find hope. So let’s take a closer look at the meaning and origin of “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” and see what it can teach us about focusing on treasures in heaven as we toil here on earth.
What Is the Meaning of “Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust”?
“Ashes to ashes” is commonly used not only as liturgy in churches but also in popular culture. It is heard at countless funeral scenes in TV shows and movies. It’s the title of a famous David Bowie song about drug addiction.
Here’s the full passage from the Book of Common Prayer:
FORASMUCH as it hath pleased Almighty God of his great mercy to take unto himself the soul of our dear brother here departed: we therefore commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ; who shall change our vile body, that it may be like unto his glorious body, according to the mighty working, whereby he is able to subdue all things to himself.
Or in simpler terms:
- Everything on earth is temporary.
- Our souls are not temporary.
- We have hope of eternal life because of the resurrection of Jesus.
- Everything is working together for God’s glory.
Even though the exact phrase “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” isn’t taken directly from Scripture, ashes and dust are common biblical symbols for humility, impermanence and sorrow.
What Does the Bible Say About Ashes and Dust?
After Adam and Eve disobey God in Genesis by eating the forbidden fruit, God tells Adam:
“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.” (Genesis 3:19, NIV)
Or here’s how the King James Version puts it:
“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”
Essentially, because of the Fall — when Adam and Eve disobeyed God and sin spread to all creation — we will spend our lives working hard to survive until we return to the dust from which God made us (Genesis 2:7).
The Bible also uses dust and ashes to symbolize humans’ humble position and weakness compared with God:
Then Abraham spoke up again: “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes.” (Genesis 18:27, NIV)
There are also several references in the Old Testament to dressing in sackcloth and ashes, which conveys humility, repentance or sorrow. For example:
When Mordecai learned of all that had been done, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the city, wailing loudly and bitterly. (Esther 4:1, NIV)
So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes. (Daniel 9:3, NIV)
And the prophet Isaiah used ashes as a symbol of the Lord redeeming humans — “to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning” (Isaiah 61:3, NIV).
The symbolism of ashes also appears in the observance of Ash Wednesday. Marking the beginning of Lent each year, Ash Wednesday falls 46 days before Easter Sunday. Church services on Ash Wednesday often focus on repentance and reflection. At some churches, a priest or pastor will draw a cross with ashes on congregants’ foreheads and say, “From dust you came, and to dust you will return.”
More Bible Verses About Dust and Ashes
From the New International Version:
Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. (Genesis 2:7)
The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. (1 Corinthians 15:47)
“Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?” (Isaiah 58:5)
As a father has compassion on his children,
so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him;
for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust. (Psalm 103:13-14)
From the New King James Version:
He raises the poor from the dust and
lifts the beggar from the ash heap,
To set them among princes
And make them inherit the throne of glory.
“For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s,
And He has set the world upon them.”
— 1 Samuel 2:8
All go to one place: all are from the dust, and all return to dust.
Then Tamar put ashes on her head, and tore her robe of many colors that was on her, and laid her hand on her head and went away crying bitterly. — 2 Samuel 13:19
O daughter of my people,
Dress in sackcloth
And roll about in ashes!
Make mourning as for an only son, most bitter lamentation;
For the plunderer will suddenly come upon us. — Jeremiah 6:26
The Hope of the Resurrection
Hope in Heaven
Because of Jesus Christ, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” does not have to be a sad phrase. Jesus died on the cross to pay for our sins and was raised from the dead three days later. His sacrifice means that we can have everlasting life. In 2 Corinthians 5, we read about the suffering in our bodies here on earth as we await our eternal life:
“For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.” — 2 Corinthians 5:1-4
Hope Here on Earth
But Christians aren’t meant to just sit around waiting for the death of our human body so we can go be in heaven. Jesus has promised us eternal life after death. But he also commanded us to care for one another here on Earth.
So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it.
2 Corinthians 5:9
God’s Word has a lot to say about caring for those who suffer. The Bible says we are to care for the poor and oppressed.
- Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy. — Proverbs 31:8-9
- If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. — 1 John 3:17
Hope Amid Poverty
The hope of Jesus’ resurrection combined with his commands to help people suffering here on earth are the reasons Compassion exists. Our mission is to release children from poverty in Jesus’ name. We do this by working with local churches around the world, where children go for tutoring, health checkups, food, Bible lessons, playtime and more. At these child development centers, the children learn that despite their difficult circumstances, they have reason to hope — not only in heaven but also here on Earth.
To provide a path out of poverty to children and youths in our Child Sponsorship Program, our church partners provide life skills, vocational training, tutoring and other educational support. Sponsors write letters to the children they support in the program, they can share about God’s plans for their futures, Bible verses about the hope of Christ, and reminders to never give up.
So although “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” reminds us that everything is temporary and that we are humble sinners who fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), it also brings great hope to Compassion staff, church partners, sponsors and children living in poverty around the world.