Friday, March 1, 2013

The Death of Sacred Texts

For those of you that haven’t been paying attention for the last two years of this blog, I’m fairly intrigued by and engaged with this whole religion thing, and I’ve written more than enough posts about death, impermanence, and object life cycles. So, when those two streams of thought come across a book titled The Death of Sacred Texts: Ritual Disposal and Renovation of Texts in World Religions I get a little giddy. Religion and death and books all wrapped up into one neat package.

Regardless of how religious they are, many people I encounter have some difficulty with the idea of disposing of books. Something about it feels wrong. Old shirts can become painting clothes, then rags, then trash, but tossing old books in the trash feels like a bigger deal. “The ubiquity of old reference books and tattered paperbacks in rummage sales and used book stores testifies to the cultural inhibition on disposing of old books.” (p. 147-8) Not surprisingly, those feelings of dis-ease are enormously magnified when that old tattered book contains what you consider sacred scripture, and has been used in religious rituals. Many religious traditions have come up with rituals to deal with sacred, ritual texts that have become damaged beyond restoration (and have also defined what can be considered legitimate restoration.)

This volume includes essays about the practices of many religious groups in their attitudes toward and disposal of physical instances of their sacred texts. The traditions discussed include: Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikh, although the authors reminded the readers that none of these traditions are monolithic and each contain a great deal of variety of practices and beliefs.

“The chapters illustrated how various religious beliefs and motivations are projected onto the preferred methods of disposal and evoke analogies to how the human body and sacred objects, such as icons and relics, are treated.” (p. 7)

I won’t do a chapter by chapter, religion by religion breakdown of the book, although I found the details of most of the traditions quite fascinating. I think one important thing to recognize, especially for western readers, is that modern western, protestant Christianity – like the rest of modern western civilization – has an intellectual, minimally ritualized approach to the Christian Bible. Most other religious traditions have a much more ritualized relationship with their sacred texts, both as texts and as objects that hold the texts.

The ritualized relationship a tradition has with a text in its usable state is key to understanding how that tradition approaches disposal of the text. Western protestant Christianity, which has at best and uncomfortable ritual relationship with the Bible has not developed any real rituals for bible disposal. The author of the chapter on Christianity polled many people who often felt like there should be a ritual for bible disposal, but nobody had participated in one, or knew of one.

One thing that plays a role in shaping how sacred texts are handled in several religious traditions is the presence of the name of the divine. In Judaism things that have on them one of the names of God must be treated differently. “In a Talmudic discussion of what is to be saved on a Sabbath in cases of fire, all parts of the TaNaKh are mentioned to prevent them from being dishonorably burnt as something worthless (see bTalmud, Shabbath 115a).” (p.17) Similar concerns for texts with the names of the divine are found in Islam.

Within the various religious traditions, the three most frequently cited means of disposal, match the three most common means of disposing of human remains; burying, burning, and disposing in water (at sea).

“You treat the Torah like a living person. You give it the respect to return it to the earth. The clay pot will dissolve. The books will dissolve. The parchment will dissolve. All of this will go back to nature as it should.” (p.23 from

The one practice for disposal which was new was mentioned both within Islam and Hinduism and that is submerging the text in water until the water has washed the ink away. Once the text is gone, the volume can be disposed of as it no longer is a sacred text.

Burying texts is a common technique, often with rituals that match the burial of human remains, however, a medieval Japanese Buddhist practice involved burying new copies of their sacred scriptures in the base of mountains in an effort to preserve them.

The final chapter, “Disposing of non-disposable texts” (which is available online at ) was a good overall assessment of the human book relationship and the increased value those books with which we have a ritualized relationship. He also moves this into the print/screen discussion. We can imagine, the author suggests, non-ritualized texts like print phonebooks being completely replaced by electronic versions, but even though it is available in multiple variations electronically, we can’t imagine the disappearance of the physical bible.

While most people who are responsible for preserving physical texts do not do this from or for particular religious motivations I don’t think understanding how various traditions handle disposing of their scared texts has nothing to say to those of us of different or no religious tradition. I think they help us identify our own very human and often ritualized relationship with texts, whether sacred or secular, and that there would be some value in thinking a little more seriously if, when, and how we dispose of these texts.


  1. Oo this is one of my favorite books. I read it a while back while researching Japanese religious texts stored in stupas/pagodas. And there's the parallel to terma - the Tibetan Buddhist texts hidden in case of apocalyptic times for future generations to use. A punctuated burial...

    1. Audra, it really was a fascinating read, and the idea of this death ritual of burying for the purpose of long-term preservation is an intriguing idea.