Cremation Is on the Rise, but Where to Put the Ashes?

Scattering the remains of your loved one—legally—can present something of a challenge.

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Lars Tunbjork / Agence Vu for TIME

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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.

32 comments
KurtVanRaden
KurtVanRaden

Great article about the laws of scattering ashes! You can also take a small amount and suspend them in glass. Check out Baloo Glass. There is a great promo video about the company on Youtube. Check it out!

www.youtube.com/watch?v=eUpVHfl1DvM 

JohnnyShi
JohnnyShi

I didn't know that there were regulations against scattering ashes on the beach. I don't think wading out a few hundred yards could hurt though. Scattering ashes is a lot more complicated then I realized. http://www.finalcarecremation.com

ScatteringAshes
ScatteringAshes

Ash Scattering Trips in New York  www.scatteringashesnyc.com

ChrisCozort
ChrisCozort

First of all, ashes from human remains will not harm the enviorment, again this goes to getting the federal government out of our lives...

SonjaCarroll
SonjaCarroll

Of course you can say goodbye with cremation. My brother in laws memorial and scattering of adhes was very nice.

PhilBentivegna
PhilBentivegna

We offer ashes scattering services at sea in New York.  We are fully licensed and abide by EPA guidelines.  

For more info, visit our web  www.scatteringashesnyc.com

SDMemorials
SDMemorials

We sell cremation urns online, and we've seen a substantial rise just in the last two years in the number of people who are purchasing biodegradable urns for the purpose of scattering cremains. The most commonly purchased item is a simple, inexpensive tube that functions much like a salt shaker. But we also see a major rise in the number of people purchasing urns that are designed to be filled and then dispersed on the ocean. There are even companies in places like Florida that make a business out of taking families out on the ocean for the purpose of scattering the cremains of a loved one.

hardtohandle
hardtohandle

What if you want to throw away the cremains?

my1life6
my1life6

www.crystalremembrance.com

Weldridge
Weldridge

There are no group cremations. Combining remains is left to veterinarians. Most if not all crematories take care of one person at a time - in fact many refuse to perform a cremation of people with their pets.

LeeMunLim
LeeMunLim

this is so disgusting we need to stop this and have home buriels

tbbaot
tbbaot

If most people saw how they do cremation, i doubt they would choose it for themselves or their loved ones. Here's a clue: That container you take home may be a blend of several people depending on how busy the crematorium is that day.