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Scattering Ashes and Telling Your Loved One's Story

by J. Malec

"My dad scattering my mom's ashes" by Orin Zebest

Photo* by Orin Zebest, "My Dad Scattering My Mom's Ashes" 

Imagine an ash scattering ceremony that continues the unique narrative of your loved one’s life. The ritual potentially symbolizes and honors your loved one in a way unique to the life the ritual represents.

What is an ash scattering ceremony? 

As the name implies, an ash scattering ceremony is when someone's cremated remains (cremains) are scattered or released into nature. Rather than keeping the ashes in a long lasting cremation urn to memorialize the person, the cremains are scattered into the earth, the sea, or the air, to once again become part of the elements.

Ash scattering – what to consider?

A little time given to considering a few questions may result in a clear vision of a meaningful ash scattering. Begin with how to tell your loved one’s story.

  • What unique passions or interests come to mind when you think of your loved one?
  • Did she or he specify a location before passing?
  • Is there a place that was very special, or often visited? Is there a photo that might help you remember a specific location?
  • Do you envision the ash scattering at sea, on land, in a scattering garden, or from the air? This will help you choose from the many choices of scattering cremation urns.

 Once you clarify the type of scattering, continue your thoughts to the actual ceremony.

  • Will the decision and planning be done as a family? Or are you solely responsible?
  • Will the scattering ashes ceremony be formal, informal?
  • How many people will be invited?
  • Will a distant location require advance planning, such as air travel with the cremains and travel plans for those attending?
  • What scattering urn for ashes will be best for your ceremony?
  • Document the scattering with photos, film, words, or with a song for you and others to remember. Include details such as where and when the ash scattering ceremony took place, who attended, what scattering urn for ashes was used.

It may help to brainstorm the many possibilities. Don’t discount any ideas that surface. Let the ink flow, mull it over, and make decisions over the course of days, weeks or longer. A scattering location is selected as a reflection of the person whose cremains will be lovingly scattered.

Know your options for an ash scattering ceremony

A quick search on the Internet provides lists of the most popular places to scatter ashes. Disneyland, a national or regional park, the ocean for a burial at sea, or a hot air balloon are among the popular choices. There is no wrong answer on how to approach this important grieving ritual. Details on ash scattering regulations and planning an ash scattering memorial provide additional guidance.

Making decisions about where to scatter ashes

Before you begin narrowing down the options, know that ashes are often scattered in unlikely locations. Many cremains have been dusted throughout ballparks such as Wrigley Field or Fenway Park (officially frowned upon by the league). How many more ashes have been released outside popular concert venues, or in the gardens of prestigious art institutions?

Scattering urns that are lightweight and easy to handle, such as the Honeycomb Scattering Urn, are ideal for ash scattering ceremonies.  They are specially designed to open for the express purpose of scattering. Urns for scattering ashes at sea, as well as scattering urns for land are available. Several biodegradable urns also serve as scattering urns.

If you plan to travel by air with the ashes for a distant ash scattering ceremony, keep in mind that the TSA recommends “security friendly” urns for ashes for screening cremains. Our planning guide, “Shipping Ashes Domestically or Internationally," offers additional specifics.

Let the ash scattering ceremony speak to his or her life story

Allow the ash scattering ritual to be an unfolding of your loved one’s story. On the website, Tré Miller Rodríguez shares her story of scattering. She took tablespoons of her late husband’s ashes with her around the world, and released them over the course of years. 

Kate Howard reports the story of BBC’s Alistair Cooke online at The Telegraph. A British native, Cooke worked in American television for 42 years. His interest in American culture and the humor it inspired played a part in his scattering ritual. A short excerpt of the story follows:

The late presenter of BBC Radio 4's Letter from America reportedly wanted his cremated remains to be spread in [Central] park, which was overlooked by his apartment. Jane, his widow, and his daughter Susie, an Episcopalian minister, organized the undercover operation which involved 10 family members and friends.

The group, including Patti Yasek, Cooke's long-time secretary, went to a branch of Starbucks where they had a coffee and then walked out into Central Park with the empty cups. Cooke's ashes were divided into each cup and then Susie used a red pashmina to signal to her mother - who had remained inside the apartment - that the secret service was about to begin.

Common scattering sites are church grounds and in scattering gardens. Uncommon and adventurous ideas include being scattered into space, and made into fireworks. Whatever simple or sophisticated ritual is planned, when done with your loved one in mind it will reflect and honor his or her unique life.

* Photo:

J. Malec is a visual artist and writer whose work often deals with themes related to loss and healing. She lives in Minneapolis, and spends much of her time practicing permaculture in the city.