Cremation is quickly becoming the standard for laying loved ones to rest. In fact, the National Funeral Directors Association’s 2022 Cremation & Burial Report predicts that cremation rates in the U.S. will exceed 50% by 2035.
Apart from costs and environmental-friendliness, cremation does offer the advantage of being able to hold your ceremony virtually anywhere. Families have many options for scattering ashes, but it’s important to understand the legalities of each option.
6 Options for Scattering Ashes in the U.S.
Families have several options for scattering their loved one’s remains. While states may have their own rules for certain types of scattering ceremonies, most jurisdictions will permit most types of scattering.
1. Over Water
One of the most popular options for scattering ashes is over water, either over the sea, a lake, or a river. Water has a spiritual connotation and is often viewed as a symbol of infinity in cultures and religions across the world.
The ashes can be scattered directly onto the water, or you can use scattering urns to lay your loved one to rest. A water-soluble urn is another option. These urns float for just a few minutes before sinking and dissolving.
To complete the ceremony, attendees can toss flowers and wreaths into the water as tribute. Just keep in mind that flowers and wreaths must easily decompose.
Under the federal Clean Water Act, cremated remains must be scattered at least three natural miles from land. The EPA also does not allow scattering at:
Wading pools by the sea
If scattering ashes at sea, you must notify the EPA within 30 days. Unfortunately, pet cremains cannot be spread at sea without first getting a special permit.
One important thing to note is that most ponds, rivers, and lakes do not fall under federal regulation. You will need to check state laws to determine whether it’s legal to scatter ashes in your desired location.
In some states, scattering ashes in inland waters is illegal.
In Texas, the law requires cremated remains to be removed from the container before being scattered unless they’re inside a biodegradable container.
In New Jersey, ashes can be scattered on public waters with approval from the state or local government.
Depending on your location, you may need to obtain a permit to scatter ashes in a lake or river. The permit would be obtained from the state agency that manages the waterway.
Many families wish to have an aerial scattering of ashes. Whether it’s off of a mountain-top, open plain or out of a plane, scattering ashes from above has become a popular choice for laying a cremated loved one to rest.
If not done by hand, aerial scattering can be performed via helicopter, plane, hot air balloon or hang glider. An aerial scattering ceremony can be an unforgettable way to spread your loved one’s ashes and hold a memorial with loved ones.
One downside to using a plane or helicopter is that you likely won’t be able to ride in the aircraft. A special company must be hired to take care of the scattering. In some cases, families may be permitted to ride in the aircraft, but space will be limited.
Because others cannot typically ride in the aircraft, many families choose to hold small ceremonies with prayers and music as the plane takes off. On clear days, the scattering can be viewed from below.
Most states do not have laws on scattering ashes from the air. However, federal law does prohibit the dropping of objects that may injure people or damage property. While cremains are not considered hazardous material, the ashes should be removed from their container before they are scattered by air.
Some states require pilots to have a special permit for scattering ashes by air. Be sure to check your local laws before planning this type of ceremony. A local crematory or funeral home should be able to provide more information or connect you with a service provider to arrange this type of scattering ceremony.
Another option for scattering ashes is raking. The process involves incorporating the ashes lightly into the soil. The ashes will serve as nutrients for the earth, feeding flowers and plants in the future.
Raking is a symbolic practice and is often carried out in “memory gardens,” which are designated spaces set aside by communities and cemeteries.
Family members can take turns raking the ashes into the soil and share a memory of the deceased throughout the process.
Most states permit raking, especially if it’s in a designated memory garden of a cemetery. However, if you want to rake ashes into soil on private property, you will need written permission from the property owner.
If you want to rake the ashes into the soil in a national park, you may also need special permission. Speak with the chief park ranger and get written permission.
For public property, you may need to obtain a scattering permit.
Rather than scattering ashes to the wind or sea, some families prefer to ensure their loved one’s remains are confined to a particular plot of land. One way to achieve that goal is with a method called trenching.
A trenching ceremony involves digging a shallow pit or trench, and then placing your loved one’s ashes into the trench. The trench is then covered with soil.
Many families choose to perform trenching ceremonies in places that were important to or meaningful to the departed loved one. They can be carried out by the family or a funeral director.
Another variation of this ceremony is a ringing ceremony. A trench is dug around a tree, a flower or another area of significance.
Trenching ceremonies are legal in most states. Just keep in mind that if you plan on performing the ceremony on private property or in a national park, you will need written permission.
Casting is what most people think of when they think about scattering their loved one’s ashes. The family simply scatters their loved one’s ashes into the wind or out onto the earth.
Scattering urns are ideal for this kind of ceremony.
Like most of the other options for scattering cremains, most states will allow casting. If you want to hold the ceremony on private property or in a national park, you will need permission.
If the ceremony is to be held near the shoreline, river, lake or pond, you may need special permission or a permit to carry out your ceremony.
6. Green Burials
A green burial is an eco-friendly way to dispose of cremains. The ashes are placed in a biodegradable container that will naturally degrade or dissolve over time. With this kind of ceremony, you return your loved one back to the earth.
Often, green burials incorporate many of the same practices and rituals as traditional burials. They may recite prayers and share stories and memories.
Attendees may be given packets of seeds to scatter where the urn will be buried. Many families also choose to release doves or butterflies during the ceremony.
Green burials are legal in most states, but there are some considerations.
If you want to hold the ceremony on private land, you will need permission from the property owner. It is legal to bury biodegradable urns on private land.
On public lands, the rules vary from one state to another. You may need written permission or a special permit to bury the urn.
Understand the Rules Before You Plan Your Ceremony
Most states permit the scattering of ashes, but some may have specific rules for certain types of scattering.
For example, in California, a permit or registration may be required to scatter cremains. If you’re not using a cemetery broker, licensed cemetery, crematory, funeral home or registered cremated remains disposer, you or someone in your family will need to register as a cremated remains disposer.
There is an application process and a fee to register.
You may also need to obtain a California Disposition Permit.
Other states may have similar rules. Make sure that you understand all the legalities before planning your ceremony.
Choosing a Biodegradable or Scattering Urn
No matter which type of ceremony you choose, one important consideration is the urn. At Geturns, we offer both biodegradable and scattering urns.
Our scattering urns feature a removable lid and a special “push in” tab that opens easily before scattering. These urns do not contain any plastic or metal components, so they can be composted or recycled after use. They're also suitable for airline transport.
Our biodegradable urns are made from recycled paper and are ideal for water scattering ceremonies. They float for a short period of time before sinking into the water and dissolving over time.
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