Sharing Cremation Ashes: Unforeseen Family Feuds

by Jerri Haaven, Certified Grief Recovery Specialist and Celebrant

"Family Feud" image by omiksernaj 

Image by omiksemaj*

What happens when a spouse of the deceased chooses not to share the cremation ashes? Nothing happens unless other family members want to keep some of the ashes. Then conflicts and hard feelings can arise.

The death of a family member or loved one often has a profound effect on survivors. Dealing with the enormous loss, survivors typically find themselves in unchartered - and sometimes stormy - waters.

A recent episode of the CBS sitcom “Mom” comically illustrates the conundrum of sharing ashes. The show presents an absurd situation about a woman who wants to hold on to the last bit of a tangible presence of her loved one. In the show, she steals her lover’s cremated ashes from the man’s contentious ex-wife. In a moment of dark humor, the woman empties the ashes into a lunchbox thermos to keep for herself. She fills the urn with Grape-Nuts to return to the man’s ex-wife.

Not only does the show suggest a thermos can be used as a cremation urn, it also indicates the unforeseen feuds that happen around sharing ashes.

Important decisions need to be made when someone passes away. Will the deceased be cremated? Without the benefit of a Last Will and Testament, or instructions for the disposition of the cremains, survivors might struggle on how to memorialize their loved one.

End of Life Conflicts in Blended Families

With blended families, additional stressors complicate matters. For instance, surviving children of the deceased might make certain demands revolving around their dad’s funeral or memorial. They might want to purchase keepsake urns, divide the ashes and take a small portion home. Or, they might choose cremation jewelry in which a pinch of their mother’s ashes can be housed in a necklace or bracelet. But if spouse #2 or #3 of the deceased has other ideas, the final say becomes contentious.

Who has legal right to cremation ashes?

In 2006 after months of legal wrangling, the ashes of Kirby Puckett, former Minnesota Twins outfielder, were awarded to his siblings. They in turn ensured Puckett’s minor children would receive them. Although Puckett had instructions to be cremated, it was not stated what to do with his ashes. Therefore, the trial judge had to take into account the testimony of his fiancé, his ex-wife and his siblings who stated their understanding of Puckett’s wishes.

Additionally, state laws had to be considered since Puckett died in Arizona, but was cremated in Minnesota. In the end, since Puckett was not married, had no adult children, or living parents, his siblings had the right to final disposition, and his ashes were given to his minor children.

For disagreements among survivors and in the absence of a will or directive that specifies disposition of cremation ashes, individual state laws might apply. Florida law, for example, states that the “surviving spouse or next of kin has the right to a decedent's body to dispose of as they see fit. When the will is silent, common law grants this right.” (“Ashes to Ashes: Comparative Law Regarding Survivors’ Disputes Concerning Cremation and Cremated Remains” by Florida International University College of Law eCollections @ FIU Law Library)

To help people in the decision-making process, there are several online end of life planning services. For a fee, you can download a final Last Will and Testament, and customize it to suit your needs. OneWorld Memorials does not endorse one site over any other. Everplans, for example, states that if the deceased’s wishes are stated in a Last Will and Testament, Living Will or other notarized legal document, then those wishes must be upheld.

Everplans cautions about the possibility of extra drama that can arise without the benefit of written instructions: If the deceased didn't make any preferences legally known, then the decision falls to the next-of-kin (nearest relative). If the next of kin is unavailable or unable to make decisions of this nature, the next of kin hierarchy is followed until someone who is able to make these decisions can be found.”

To qualify as next of kin, statutes generally refer to the surviving spouse, blood relatives, adopted children, and adoptive parents in a hierarchy manner.

When all else fails, and the last wishes cannot be carried out per the deceased’s request, then families may want to consider bringing in a mediator to help settle disputes.

The Final Say

Whether death was caused by a life-threatening illness, an accident or by natural causes, the shock to survivors cannot be underestimated. To ensure that you have the final say, stating your wishes before you die can avert family conflicts. Our planning guide, “Preplanning and Prepaying Cremation Costs," provides detailed information and a checklist to assist you.

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Jerri Haaven is a freelance writer, and a certified Grief Recovery Specialist and Celebrant. When caring for her dad, who suffered from dementia and COPD, Jerri struggled with the negative side effects of his illness. She developed positive outlets to express herself and recover from her loss. Today as a certified Grief Recovery Specialist and Celebrant, she uses her skills to help people who are in the midst of their own personal story of grief and loss.


My in laws are holding my husbands ashes and will not give them to the cemetery to put in his statue we had custom made for him. What can I do? It was prepaid and we need his ashes, it’s been a year and I need closure. How do I go about getting his ashes to put them in his final resting place?

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