The Traditions, Rules and Expectations of Scattering Ashes

by Alex Johnson September 04, 2020 5 min read

You might have once seen a family dropping ashes into an ocean after a ceremony, or burying them up in the mountains while hiking. However, it is important to keep in mind that while it might seem normal and harmless, different states have different laws when it comes to scattering ashes from an urn. Whether your family might be looking to release the ashes of a loved one, or bury them in a cremation container for ashes, a bit of research can help ease the process.

Typically, there are four approaches to releasing ashes, and the laws surrounding them vary. Here, we look at the four most common approaches to scattering ashes or releasing urns and cremation containers, and what families might need to know before any approach.

Burying Ashes in Cremation Urns

While it might seem odd to elect to bury the ashes of a loved one, when ashes are typically thought of as more for open release, burying the ashes offer a number of benefits. For starters, a traditional burial requires a coffin or casket, which are often expensive. With a full burial, families must also pay for the plot of land in which the casket goes. Since most federal laws dictate the type of land this is, it also puts limitations as to where a body can be buried.

Having the option to still have a formal funeral and burial process, while having more options and leeway with that burial draws in some to choose the burial of ashes for their final farewell.

If you elect to have a loved one cremated, and you intend to bury them, there are two components to consider: location and container. Most states require permission to bury ashes on certain lands, as in they should be owned by the individual or should have explicit permission from the owner or the city/county. In addition, most states require that the cremation container be biodegradable. Fortunately, there are a ton of options for available cremation urns for sale that are biodegradable and environmentally friendly

Scattering Ashes at Sea

Scattering the ashes of a loved one at sea can be a popular choice for those who love the freedom it represents or anyone who had a particular affinity for the ocean. Due to laws and regulations at open sea being drastically different from that of land, individuals must follow EPA rules and regulations.

First, ashes need to be released no closer than three nautical miles from the shoreline (one nautical mile is just slightly under one regular mile). This requires a means of transportation out to sea, as well as a means of gauging the distance. Ashes cannot simply be released onto the shores of a beach.

Second, the law also states that: “Flowers and wreaths consisting of materials which are readily decomposable in the marine environment may be disposed of under the general permit set forth in this section at the site at which disposal of human remains is authorized”. Biodegradable cremation containers as opposed to general urns for adult or child ashes must be used in this type of setting, as well.

Third, the burial/release of ashes must be reported within 30 days. These forms are quick and straightforward, and simply serve to keep the EPA notified of any release done.

Scattering Ashes on Public or Private Land

When it comes to what to do with ashes, spreading or releasing them on land is one of the most common approaches. Families might choose to have a release ceremony in the mountains or at a park or in the backyard or in some other space of special memory. Before releasing ashes in any space, whether public or private land, it’s important to check with specific laws in your county or state.

Fortunately, regardless of where you live, most states have easy access online to their own regulations regarding distributing ashes. There is no one-size fits all approach to the laws behind each state, but there are some commonalities. Releases on private land typically require approval from the landowner, which can be the easiest route.

In public spaces, however, scattering ashes might be forbidden, might require permission from the state, or might require permission from the county. Some states require thorough due diligence to apply for approval, while others offer more lenient laws. Some states allow for ashes to be released on public land, but only land that is “uninhabited”, while others require approval from state parks, and such.

Either way, find the online information for your state on a .gov website, rather than a generic .com site to ensure you have the most accurate information by state. From California and down to Texas, and up to New York, state laws vary slightly. Keep an eye out for key words like “cremated remains distribution” or “release of cremated remains” to find out what the specifics are. They can be tricky to interpret, so a valuable resource should be the company cremating the remains for you.                                                

Releasing Ashes from a Plane

Releasing ashes from a plane is probably the least common approach on this list, but it’s not unheard of! Pilots, travel aficionados, or simply those who love the idea of having their ashes released so close to the heavens, might all have dictated this as their preference.

Federal laws dictate no potentially harmful items or objects may be released from a plane, which means the ashes alone can be released but no cremation urn along with the ashes. State laws vary, however with some requiring a cremation license for the pilot, others requiring state approval, or others still simply requiring a specific height at which the ashes are dropped.

If you are looking to hire a pilot to fly the ashes and release them, find a reliable business with cremation distribution licensing to ensure they follow all laws and procedures for your area. Additionally, if you have your own plane and are looking to release them privately, consult your .gov site on cremation release.

Other Considerations Before Releasing Ashes

In addition to the official federal laws or state regulations regarding releasing ashes, there are also other less formal considerations to keep in mind. Here are some basic expectations, rules of respect, and common sense practices to keep in mind for your own release of ashes:

  • Spatial awareness: While you may be ready to release the ashes of a loved one from the comfort of your own property, be mindful of the fact that you might not have full control over where those ashes land. If neighbors or passerbys are in the area, make sure you time your release, respectfully.
  • Weather:Wind can wreak havoc on where ashes land and limit your own control. While we cannot control the weather, simply be aware of the direction of the wind and any individuals who might be in that direction.
  • Environment: The ecological impact of plastics and non-biodegradable materials does lasting harm, and with so many biodegradable cremation urns for sale as an option, choose the least harmful route.
  • Shared lands: Private land has limitations to who has access, but public land does not. Be mindful of the fact that while burying or releasing ashes in a public space opens is your private experience, strangers also have access to that area as well.

Spreading a loved one’s ashes has been a standing tradition for centuries.  It’s a practice rooted in cultures and societies across every continent. Although the practices and traditions might vary between them, it’s an honored method of farewell for many groups and individuals.