As an article in the current issue of TIME explains, (“The American Way of Death” by Josh Sanburn,) by 2017, one out of two Americans will choose cremation over burial. The ashes of the deceased—funeral directors call them “cremains”—are mostly mineral, harmless, and highly portable. But finding a final resting place for them can be tricky. According to the Cremation Association of North America (CANA), one-third of people who receive cremains bury them, one third keep them, and the last third scatter them. It’s the scattering that can present the most challenges, since states, counties, and cities have stitched together an uneven patchwork of laws about where human ashes can end up.
Lots of people like the ideas of scattering ashes at sea, but boats and planes must be at least three nautical miles from shore before any ashes go overboard, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Note that only biodegradable objects, such as cremains, flowers, and wreaths, are permitted in the ocean—no urns or other objects—and pet ashes are prohibited. Scatterings are supposed to be reported to the regional administrator of the EPA within thirty days.
(Click here to read TIME’s special report on cremation and find out why our changing attitude toward this final rite of passage says everything about the way we live now.)
If you’re thinking about scattering on the beach, many states, such as California, have rules that prohibit seaside sprinklings. (Although if you’re willing to wade out a bit, California does allow scatterings five hundred yards from shore.) The non-profit Funeral Consumers Alliance says that many states turn a blind eye to shoreside scattering into public waters, preferring to save their enforcement actions for big-time polluters. But that doesn’t mean it’s legal.
As for the great wide open, many national parks (including the Grand Canyon) allow scattering with a permit and permission from the chief park ranger. However, ashes must be finely pulverized and widely distributed to avoid leaving any potentially alarming chunks of tooth or bone. The rules at national parks also require staying away from roads, developed areas, and bodies of water. In some areas, scattering is prohibited to avoid contaminating future archeological explorations.
Private lands require permission from the owner. Central Park is out, as is Disneyland, at least if you want to stay on the right side of the law. Ditto most stadiums. In 2005, a man ran onto Lincoln Financial Field during a game and began sprinkling the ashes of his late mother, who was apparently a big Philadelphia Eagles fan. He was arrested, fined $100, and sentenced to fifty hours of community service. (Disneyland is reportedly a favored place for “wildcat scatterers,” people who distribute ashes without permission. The Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean are said to be the most popular spots for such dustings.)
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The Federal Aviation Administration doesn’t prohibit cremains to be scattered from airplanes, as long as there’s no hazard to people or property. Many states prohibit scattering ashes over developed areas or bodies of water, and in some states, pilots have to be flying at a minimum altitude before they start scattering. But note that dropping ashes from a plane isn’t a job for amateurs, who can easily end up with a face full of grandpa. Jeff Jorgenson, owner of Elemental Cremation and Burial in Seattle and a funeral director with a background in aviation, tells the story of a pilot friend who got more than she bargained for while scattering ashes. “She got out into the yonder and opened the window … A sizable portion of the person swirled back into the cockpit and covered everything. She ended up having to divert to the nearest airport to clean the plane out. I can’t even imagine what a mess that would be.”
Fortunately, if you’re just planning to transport the ashes by air—not scatter them—many airlines will give you the option of bringing the ashes in a carry-on or checking them in luggage. Mailing human ashes is legal, with the right forms, although only the US Postal Service will oblige. FedEx and UPS won’t be any help in this situation. All in all, says Jorgenson, “The costs of notifying authorities and getting a permit are minimal. Why would you risk the fines and hassle by not doing it properly?”
Click here to read TIME’s special report on cremation and find out why our changing attitude toward this final rite of passage says everything about the way we live now.