The Legality of Scattering Ashes

by Kristal Borjas May 14, 2021 6 min read

1 Comment

The act of taking a loved one's ashes and releasing them with love and intention into the world must be carefully considered. Where should you scatter the ashes of your loved one? What place in the world carries meaning and significance? Where do you want them to rest for eternity?

We often ask ourselves these big questions but perhaps forget to ask the questions about the legalities behind where we can scatter ashes. It does take some research and planning, and it's important to know that many states actually place strict requirements on citizens and where they can leave ashes. Few things can feel as awful as the emotional experience of releasing the ashes of a family member, only to then be given a citation or ticket for doing so.

To understand the considerations for scattering ashes in a location, first know that it can be essentially broken down into two components: public land and private land. The next considerations are who owns that public land and who owns that private land. To understand your options for each, let’s look more closely at what they entail.


Scattering Ashes on Private Land

When it comes to scattering ashes on private land, it is legal to scatter ashes on private land that is owned by you. You can bury ashes in the ground or toss them into the wind without needed permission as long as you are the owner of that land.

If private land is owned by another individual, most states across the US require actual written consent from that landowner to grant permission to spread ashes on that land. States do not recommend verbal permission but require documented consent that spreading the ashes in that area is okay. This helps protect both parties from a dispute or disagreement later down the line and can be saved as documentation that permission was granted.


The documented consent does not need to be a formal, notarized document, it should include the following to ensure protection and agreement:

  • Date of agreement as well as the date of the official scattering
  • Specified consent as to the location where the ashes may be scattered
  • Names and signatures of both parties, as well as necessary contact information
  • Any needed details, like whether the ashes will be released or buried on the land

Both parties should maintain a copy of this for their own records. It’s unlikely anything will come up as a result of scattering the ashes, but regardless, it’s good to have the original agreement saved on hand.

After securing permission to scatter the ashes, there are other things to consider. First, always think about the people nearby. Is the location an isolated farm or a substantial amount of land? Or is it someone's private property that is close to someone else's private property? Does your land border with a neighbor's, a neighbor who might take issue with ashes on their land? Are there people who often walk by the area who might tread on loose ashes?

Just because the desired location is private land and you're allowed to spread those ashes doesn't mean you should do it without a second thought. Always consider the traffic in the area, the wind, the people coming and going, and any other issues that might arise.

Scattering Ashes on Public Land or Property 

Releasing ashes on public property or public land is a more challenging process and one that can vary depending on whether the land is federally owned, state-owned, or neither of the two. It also changes depending on what state you live in or plan to scatter the ashes in.

It's important to do your own specific research for the area and to reach out to the proper officials regarding specific information. However, for the most part, you can find some of that information here.

Many public land spaces allow for families to release or bury the ashes of a beloved family member on certain areas of public land; however, families must often seek permission or approval prior to doing so. Scattering ashes usually cannot be done in populated city areas which are frequented by people either walking around or lingering. This is something to keep in mind as you most likely wouldn't want to have your scattering ceremony interrupted by passersby.

National parks are a popular choice for some families because of the beautiful scenery and significance that is often associated with them. Most national parks require a specific application to be completed with sufficient notice in order for individuals to receive approval. Similar expectations are set for state parks, which often mandate that an application be completed prior to the ashes being spread. Local parks are often a trickier space to release ashes, as they're considered inhabited and often face more traffic from people. If there are people in the area that you’re considering spreading ashes, it’s less likely to be an approved space for ashes.

Outside of parks, if there are other public spaces where you’re hoping to release the ashes of a loved one, it’s important to do your research. Find out who owns that land and reach out to them to do your due diligence.

Once you’ve been given approval for your desired location to spread the ashes, make sure you bring that approval form and identification form with you for the actual release. This protects you in the event that the authorities show up and request proof of permission to spread those ashes in that particular location.


Scattering Ashes in the Air or Over the Ocean

Although it is quite common, scattering the ashes of a loved one in the ocean is not as simple as walking along the beach to spread the ashes. In fact, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) only allows cremated remains to be released into the ocean at a distance of three nautical miles or more. Water scattering can also only be done with compostable or biodegradable urns, such as a biodegradable salt or paper cremation urn.

This means that to allow for a cremation burial or scattering at sea, one will need a watercraft vessel to transport them or will need to hire one as part of the process. There is no depth requirement, as long as the ashes are left three nautical miles or more from the shore.

Although a family does not need to seek written permission in order to scatter ashes in the ocean, they are required to notify the EPA within 30 days of the ashes being released.  The EPA documents and tracks the frequency and location of cremation scatterings.

When it comes to having ashes released from a plane, the questions turn not to the EPA but to the FAA, Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA does not have any limitations that specify that ashes cannot be released from planes, but they do have laws regarding how high in the air a plane must be to drop ashes as well as what they’re flying in over. For example, nothing can be dumped when flying over highly populated areas at certain heights or dense city spaces.


Considerations Before Burying or Scattering Ashes

The vessel or container in which the ashes have been placed is extremely important when considering how and where to distribute them. If you are burying the ashes on private land, it’s easier to scatter or bury them in a vessel of your choice. This is the opposite if you’re looking into burning the ashes in a cemetery as most cemeteries require a non-biodegradable urn to be placed into a burial vault before burial. 

However, on public land, many spaces do not allow any sort of burial of ashes, and this is especially true when one doesn't use a biodegradable or decomposing container. Some national or state parks allow burials but only with the use of biodegradable containers so as to not hinder the environment. Always check with your designated site regarding what containers can or cannot be used on their land. Additionally, most water spaces require biodegradable containers, while ashes released from airplanes may not have to be contained at all when they're released. 

Some families decide to scatter the ashes in multiple areas or to only scatter a small portion of the ashes. If you want to keep some of the cremation remains for memorial purposes, that’s okay. Permanent cremation urns come in all sizes so that families can create their own personal experience for remembering a loved one.


Have a Backup Plan and Remember What’s Important

Saying goodbye is never easy, it is a trying time for you and your loved ones. This is why it’s important to reach out and seek permission from the necessary parties when looking to scatter ashes somewhere special. The last thing you need is to be confronted by authorities from a potential legal transgression during this difficult time. Stay open-minded and try not to get too locked in on one location, especially if someone has the power to tell you no.

What's important is that you loved someone, and they remain in your heart forever. There are plenty of places and ways to say farewell, so always do your research, follow the laws, and find ways to make your experience sentimental. 

1 Response

Elle Jones
Elle Jones

July 02, 2024

I like that you said that states call for written authorization before recommending distributing cremains in a particular location. This may be retained as proof that permission was granted and helps shield both parties from a subsequent conflict or disagreement. My father enjoyed camping and hiking, so I’ve been considering scattering his ashes in the mountains. It seems like a wonderful way to pay tribute to his memory. I appreciate your insights.

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