At worship services today – Ash Wednesday – the clergy at the Lutheran and Catholic churches in town will make the sign of the cross with ashes on the foreheads of worshipers while saying, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”

Pastor Leonard Payton at St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church contends that not only is the applying of ashes a time-tested ritual in the Church going back to the fourth century, but also is still very relevant, because it is a stark reminder that death is real and inevitable.

Payton has observed that people in our culture have a hard time accepting the reality of death.  “Often the person in the casket,” he said, “looks better than they have in ten years, and the casket is the finest piece of cabinetry they ever had.”

During a burial, to help mourners grasp the reality that a loved one has died, Payton – like other clergy – scoops dirt from the ground and pours it onto the polished mahogany or oak. He then makes the sign of the cross in the dirt…Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Many residents of Forest Park will be thinking of their own caskets today.  Meanwhile, members of the Chamber of Commerce promotions committee are thinking about caskets in a very silly way.  They plan on having a casket race in October.

Laurie Kokenes, executive director of the Forest Park Chamber of Commerce and Development, got the idea from a town in Colorado while surfing the Web. 

“It couldn’t be a better fit for a village with more dead people than alive,” said Chris Guillen, a member of the promotions committee.  “It’s an event with an edge to it.”

So, what is this casket race? Picture soapbox derby, but with mock caskets used as the vehicle bodies.

The two approaches to caskets and death seem diametrically opposed. One is serious and the other is silly.  One tries to grasp the reality of human mortality and use it as a motivation for penitence.  The other seems to avoid dealing with death by making light of it.

St. Bernardine’s pastor, Fr. George Velloorattil, won’t be worrying about making money today.  His mission is to help his parishioners look beyond the cares of this world.  “We live in a world of material possessions, of material demands,” he said.  “Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, a time to look beyond material needs. Our bodily cravings should be put on hold, and we should spend a few more hours thinking about our future life.”

Likewise, Pr. Payton believes that ashes prominently applied to the forehead “puts things in perspective.” 

“It’s a visual antidote to worldliness.  This life is not everything there is,” he said, adding that when he makes the sign of the cross in dirt on a casket or with ashes on the forehead, “I’m trying to communicate that death really has happened [and will happen for everyone] and resurrection is the game we’re playing for.  It’s everything.”

In planning a silly casket parade and races for the fall, however, the chamber members are not really avoiding the issue of death – at least not in terms of their businesses.  They are acutely aware that small businesses are very vulnerable entities.  The US Small Business Administration reports that three out of 10 new employer firms go out of business within two years of their startups, and about half die within five years.  

Although a few merchants in town are doing okay during this recession, many are struggling.  When asked, “How’s business?” many Madison Street shop-owners respond with a thumbs down and a weary shake of their heads.

So, in a sense, the idea of a casket race is a cause for hope in the midst of their awareness that there are no guarantees of survival when running a small business.  Unlike with human beings, the death of a business is not inevitable.  Maybe an “edgy” event like a casket race will attract the attention of people in the greater Chicago area, draw them to this village where more people are dead than alive, and give them an occasion to spend some of their money.

In one sense, Pr. Payton and the chamber are on the same page.  The chamber can’t turn this recession around, but they can do something.  Pr. Payton used an analogy of skin cancer to point out that human beings can do something when it comes to death. 

He said that if you noticed a lesion on your hand and went to the dermatologist, wanting only a cream to put on the sore and maybe a prescription of painkillers, you wouldn’t want to hear the doctor say it’s skin cancer.  But, if that is the correct diagnosis, you have a choice.  You can pretend that the doctor doesn’t know what she is talking about, buy some skin cream and Tylenol at the drug store and go on with your life as if nothing significant had happened.

Or, you can face the reality of what you have learned and take appropriate action to address it.  For him, sin is the problem and heaven and hell are at stake.  Lent is a time to address ultimate concerns.  “We need to see things as they really are,” said Pr. Payton.

Guillen said that the casket races could be held for three or four hours on a Saturday morning close to Halloween.  The event would begin with a parade of the caskets, which would all be made from the same kit supplied by the chamber, but decorated creatively by those sponsoring the “vehicle.” 

Following that, there would be a downhill, soapbox-derby-style race on the Circle Avenue overpass and then a 100- or 200-yard race on Madison Street in which the caskets would be pushed by one or two people. 

Sponsorships and entry fees would mean that it would be a moneymaker for the chamber, Guillen said, but more importantly it would attract people to Forest Park.  “If we get everyone on board,” he said, “this could be a massive draw for our town.  It’s unlike anything our area has ever seen, and it’s easily marketable.  Hopefully it will bring some press to our incredibly unique village.  We think this idea should be a killer [pun intended].”

Ash Wednesday services

  • St. Peter’s Lutheran Church: 11 a.m.
  • St. John’s Lutheran Church: 12 p.m. and 7 p.m.
  • St. Bernardine Catholic Church: 6:30 and 8:30 a.m., 7 p.m.