Letting go is an inherent part of losing a loved one. There are two components of saying goodbye: the emotional and the physical. The former may be confusing and difficult for many, but the latter can come with its own set of questions—especially when a loved one or family chooses cremation.
Scattering the ashes of a loved one is a literal letting go. Some find the symbolism of releasing ashes into water or over earth a significant way to say goodbye and an important step in the grieving process. Your Dignity Memorial® provider can always offer guidance on scattering your loved one's ashes.
In this article you will learn about:
- The legality of scattering ashes
- Places to spread ashes
- Types of urns for scattering ashes
- Things to think about before scattering ashes
- How to make spreading a loved one's ashes more meaningful
- What to do with ashes in addition to scattering
- How different religions view scattering ashes
- How to pre-plan a cremation with scattering
Is scattering ashes legal?
Scattering ashes is common, but is it legal? The short answer is sometimes.
Federal, state and local laws govern the practice of scattering ashes over land and water. Scattering ashes in rivers, lakes and streams is prohibited in some states. Wherever you are, trespassing laws apply. So do littering laws.
Sample scattering guidelines
In Texas, for example, the law states that a person may scatter ashes over uninhabited public land, over a public waterway or on the private property of a consenting owner. Texas law also states that unless you've chosen a biodegradable container, you can't leave the container behind after scattering the ashes.
In California, the law allows ashes to be spread in a cemetery scattering garden or someplace else, so long as there aren't local laws against it and the property owner or government agency that oversees the property has given written permission.
As the law suggests, common courtesy is important when it comes to scattering ashes. You shouldn't just wander onto someone's private land and scatter a loved one's ashes. Call, write or visit the property owner and explain your wishes.
Scattering at the beach or at sea
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) prohibits scattering at coastal beaches or in wading pools. If you want to scatter ashes in federal waters, the Federal Clean Water Act requires that you go out at least 3 nautical miles, and you're required to notify the EPA within 30 days afterward. Read what the EPA has to say about burial at sea.
Scattering from the air
However, there's nothing in the Federal Aviation Regulations to prohibit scattering ashes from an airplane—just don't toss out the container. And be aware of where the ashes will land; a permit could be required for that.
The bottom line: If you plan to spread your loved one's ashes someplace besides your own property or a cemetery scattering garden, ask your funeral director for help, do your research and get permission if needed.
Where can ashes be spread?
Many people who pre-plan their cremations specify where they'd like their ashes to be spread. Even people who don't go so far as to document their plans in advance may mention to their families where they'd like their ashes spread, and family members are generally happy to fulfill such wishes.
Most often, people choose places that mean a lot to them, somewhere they've spent a lot of time and gleaned a lot of joy. Beauty and sentiment play into their choices, which may be:
Some prefer to stick close to home in life and death—and there's not a thing wrong with that. Scatter in your own lovely backyard, the hunting camp where he spent every winter weekend or the vacation house you've shared with cousins for decades.
State or national park
The idea of being scattered under tall trees, with forest creatures, appeals to many nature lovers. You may need a permit though, so be sure to check with the park service. You might also ask your funeral director.
Grandpa's favorite fishing hole may be a fitting place to scatter his ashes—just be sure to get permission if you need it. And remember that the EPA requires you to go out 3 nautical miles if you want to scatter in the Gulf of Mexico or one of the oceans. Coastal cities often have charter boat companies that specialize in helping families scatter ashes. Try an internet search.
Hillside, cliff or mountaintop
Pretty places with spectacular views are popular choices for spreading ashes. There's something wonderful about climbing up high and taking it all in—and then letting it all go. If this is your choice, however, consider the people who would attend the scattering. Not everyone is able to hike a distance or traverse difficult terrain.
Sports venue or theme park
Sports fans and lovers of amusement parks may wish to be scattered on the field, across a course or near a favorite ride. Contact the property's management to ask if this is something that can be arranged. Many places will reject your request, but some will allow it.
A pilot, flight attendant, paratrooper, skydiver or someone who just loves adventure may want their ashes released from a plane. There may be some rules that have to do with where the ashes will land—on an airstrip or in a national park, for example. If you hire a company to take your loved one's ashes up in the air for the purpose of scattering, be sure to ask about regulations. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association has some guidance.
Cemetery scattering garden
A permanent memorial is important to some, and a cemetery scattering garden gives family members now and in the future a place to gather and remember a loved one. Some churches also have scattering gardens for community members. However, most cemeteries do not allow scattering outside of specifically designated space. Read about all your cremation cemetery options.
A note about flying commercially with a loved one's ashes: If scattering a loved one's ashes first means traveling by air, there are a couple of things you should do before leaving home. First, check with the airline on which you are traveling that ashes are allowed on board as a carry-on or in checked luggage. Then, check with the airport, which may require you to show a death certificate and/or a certificate of cremation before going through airport security. The Transportation Security Administration recommends that you purchase a wood, plastic or ceramic container (without a lead lining) for transporting your loved one’s ashes, as these materials usually pass security screening without issue. And if you plan to place your loved one's ashes in your checked luggage, remember that bags get lost. You could lose the ashes temporarily or forever.
What kinds of urns are made for scattering ashes?
If you're planning to scatter a loved one's ashes, you may elect to skip the urn. Ashes are returned to families by a crematory or funeral home in a temporary container in which you can keep the ashes until you scatter them.
Some families will divide the ashes among family members for scattering. They use Ziploc bags, glass jars, brown paper bags, small boxes, coffee cups with lids, and other inexpensive temporary containers.
Others choose keepsake containers. They transfer the ashes to a special container, or multiple containers for several family members, and travel with it to the chosen scattering location. These types of scattering urns—or scattering tubes, as is often the case—can be quite beautiful. They can also be personalized.
Wood or metal scattering tubes are sometimes engraved with the loved one's name and birth and death dates. Scattering tubes can also be made of cardboard, either plain or printed with an ocean scene, vibrant sunset, night sky and more. Some are wrapped with papers printed with verses and poems.
Those who've planned a water scattering may purchase a biodegradable scattering urn made of papier-mâché, salt, cornstarch or another eco-friendly material. These containers are often works of art (think: sea creatures, shells and flowers) and designed to dissolve in water.
What are some things to think about before scattering ashes?
You know your loved one wanted their ashes spread, and now it's up to you to fulfill that wish. Before you scatter, a few things to consider:
Do you want to scatter all of the ashes or keep some for yourself and other family members? You may wish later that you'd kept a a small amount. Your brother might feel the same way down the road.
Do you want to take photos before or during the scattering? You may want to remember the moment with pictures, especially if the scattering location isn't someplace you can easily get to.
Do you want a permanent place to visit and remember? You could scatter some of the ashes and place the rest in a cemetery, ensuring a place where current and future generations can go to reflect later.
How can I make spreading a loved one's ashes a meaningful ceremony?
Many families choose to combine a scattering with a small memorial service. It can be as simple as a few friends standing in a circle, holding hands and sharing memories, or you can plan an ash scattering ceremony with a little more structure.
- You might start with a poem or a prayer.
- One person can scatter the ashes or friends and family might take turns.
- For a water scattering, you might scatter fresh flower petals along with the ashes.
- For an earth scattering, you might use a small rake to blend the ashes with the soil.
- You could close with a song or words of farewell.
You'll know what feels most appropriate for your loved one. The most important thing is to take a moment to say goodbye in a thoughtful and personalized way.
A note about ashes and the actual scattering: Ashes are less like fine powder and more like coarse sand with a few pebbles. That surprises some people—and it's something to know ahead of time. You'll also want to prepare to have all of your guests stand upwind when you're ready to scatter. You don't want to cover yourself or your friends and family in your loved one's ashes.
What can you do with ashes in addition to scattering?
Not all of a loved one's ashes have to be scattered—and not all of them have to be scattered in the same place.
In fact, one benefit of cremation is that ashes can be divided among family members or memorialized in a variety of ways at the same time.
Here are a few ideas:
Bury them at sea
Send them into space
Have them made into jewelry
Have them spun into glass art
Place them in a cemetery
Keep them at home
How do different religions view scattering ashes?
Not every family who chooses cremation also chooses to scatter the ashes. Some families may simply not want to do it, and some religions prohibit it.
For example, though the Catholic Church approves of cremation, it does not approve of scattering. It's seen as desecration and a sign of disrespect. A Catholic family may instead elect to keep a loved one's ashes at home or place them in a mausoleum niche or bury them in a cemetery.
Conversely, Hinduism has a long tradition of scattering the ashes of loved ones in a river, ideally the Ganges River. Hindus believe that this practice releases the soul from its earthly existence and sets it on the way to nirvana.
Buddhists prefer cremation, but they don't necessarily prefer scattering. In fact, they may prefer burial if the parents of the deceased are still living. Similarly, Protestants may choose to scatter or not. The Bible doesn't make a preference known, so it really depends on the family's preference.
How do you plan a cremation ahead of time?
Without a prepaid plan, there’s no way to guarantee that your wishes for cremation will be honored. Planning and funding your cremation ahead of time provides an outline and the money for the end-of-life arrangements that best reflect your personality and passions.
Keep it simple with cremation and backyard scattering. Go bigger with an outdoor cremation memorial service, keepsake urns and a scattering at sea. It's all up to you.
When you plan ahead, you save your family from the emotional burden of making arrangements for you, and you protect them against rising costs by locking in prices on some items. That means even if the price goes up, your loved ones won’t have to pay more.