A guide to scattering ashes and interment of ashes

7 min read

Your options after cremation: scattering ashes and interment of ashes

  • Scattering ashes on private land is legal, with permission.

  • Permits of some kind are usually required on public land or water, depending on your state.

  • There are cultural and logistical considerations that limit where you should scatter ashes.

  • Interment is when you bury your loved one’s ashes or keep them in a columbarium, which is a structure built to house and display urns.

  • Ashes can be emotionally upsetting to encounter, so take your time and be prepared for a texture that is more like sand than ash.

It’s so hard to say goodbye to someone we love. But scattering the ashes of a loved one—or finding a final resting place for their ashes, which is known as interment—can offer us a deeply meaningful moment of connection in the midst of our grief.

Sometimes, a loved one will leave instructions for their ashes to be scattered in a place they loved. But even if you don’t know their explicit wishes, planning the ash-scattering ritual can help you channel and process your grief.

Interment of ashes

If you’d like to have a place to visit in the future, where your loved one’s ashes are stored along with a memorial plaque or headstone honoring their legacy, then interment is an option to consider.

With interment, the ashes can be buried in a cemetery, an urn garden, at your home, in another meaningful location, or in a columbarium, which is a structure that displays the urns in small boxes that line the walls.

Cemeteries are the most common place for ashes to be buried. Prices vary; burial can range from $350 to $1,000 or more. And once you’ve bought a plot in a cemetery, other family members’ ashes typically can be buried there.

If you would like to inter your loved one’s ashes in a church cemetery, keep in mind that they may have their own requirements, such as having a particular type of ceremony performed before burial. In other locations, you usually can organize and run your own ceremony.

Planning an ash-scattering ceremony

Many people leave final wishes asking for their ashes to be scattered in a location that has nothing to do with a cemetery or a columbarium. Or perhaps your family wants to create a unique and distinctive way to honor your loved one.

In these cases, you’ll want to have an ash-scattering ceremony at the location of your choosing.

Before you begin, it’s best to lay some groundwork, either alone or with the help of the family. Do you want to hold a formal ceremony around scattering the ashes? Will there be readings or music? Who, if anyone, will be with you? Where will it take place? Then, dive into the details.

Think about whether you’d like to organize a memorial around the scattering of the ashes, or if you’d like it to be a private moment of parting between you and your loved one.

If you’re considering a memorial, this is an opportunity to be as creative or traditional as you like: a small gathering where each mourner offers a few words of remembrance, an exuberant celebration of life in an exotic location, or a careful ritual with roots in your community’s heritage. 

You might also choose to organize a series of memorials where only some of the ashes are scattered each time. The exact ritual is yours to create. There is no right or wrong way to say goodbye to your loved one. There are, however, some restrictions on where it can be done.

Finding a special place to scatter the ashes

Whether you received instructions or you have somewhere in mind that carries meaning for you and your loved one, the location in which you scatter the ashes is usually the first and most important consideration. Whatever your starting point, take all the time you need to prepare. Ashes can be scattered any time after cremation, so move at a pace that feels comfortable.

Take all the time you need to prepare – ashes can be scattered any time after cremation.

As you start to plan, you’ll want to do some basic research. Make sure to familiarize yourself with local and state laws governing how ashes can be scattered. If possible, visit the scattering site in advance. Some of the questions that will have an impact on your preparations are:

Do I need a permit to scatter ashes on a given piece of land? 

Scattering ashes on private land is legal, with the owner’s permission. In public places, you’ll want to check with local authorities; you may need to apply for a permit.

If you choose to scatter your loved one’s ashes in a national or state park, each park has its own rules and processes regarding ashes. Be prepared to fill out a simple application or Letter of Permission to keep with you when you are in the park. Some sites require a small fee.

Letters of Permission and other permit documents that parks provide will clearly lay out best practices for scattering ashes. Guidelines may tell you, for example, how far to be from nearby buildings or to avoid scattering ashes near trails so no hiker accidentally treads on them. 

City parks almost everywhere in the U.S. allow for scattering of ashes without special permission, provided you stay clear of playgrounds, ball fields, and other heavily trafficked areas.

If you decide to scatter your loved one’s ashes in a cemetery's scattering garden, speak with the cemetery manager to make arrangements.

What are the rules for scattering ashes on water? 

Scattering ashes over the ocean is legal and falls within the Environmental Protection Agency’s rules for burials at sea. You’ll just need to release the ashes at least three nautical miles from land, whether from a boat or aircraft. Scattering at a beach is therefore never permitted. 

You are expected to notify the EPA within a month of scattering ashes at sea.

Inland bodies of water are subject to local laws. If you want to scatter ashes in a lake, for instance, you will likely need state permission.

Other rules around scattering ashes

It’s important to be familiar with and follow your state’s specific legal restrictions on scattering ashes. While these laws may be rarely enforced, there are certain rules you always should adhere to. Even though ashes are sterile and will not harm the environment, cultural sensitivities around funerary practices should still restrict where it’s appropriate to part with them. Here are some ways that you can show respect for the place you or your loved one has chosen.

Be mindful of others

Avoid scattering ashes areas where you, your guests, or others in the general area will have to come into physical contact with the ashes. That might mean avoiding a popular park, a crowded outdoor event, or any place where winds can carry ashes in unpredictable ways.

Get to know the place where you’re planning to scatter ashes, and be sensitive to how your ceremony or remembrance may affect the locals.

Be culturally sensitive

In many cultures, there are boundaries and taboos around how to bid farewell those who have passed. Cremation is forbidden in Islam, for instance. Get to know the place where you’re planning to scatter ashes, and be sensitive to how your ceremony or remembrance may affect the locals. If your ritual doesn’t fit within cultural boundaries, you may want to scatter the ashes more discreetly, or in a different location.

The logistics of scattering

What we refer to as scattering ashes is known more specifically as casting. It means pouring the ashes into the wind over land or water. Ashes can also be released in other ways, whether blending them with the soil via raking or burying them in a shallow dugout, called trenching.

It can be hard to foresee what it will be like to come into contact with your loved one’s remains. Take the time and mental energy you need after their passing to prepare for this. Ultimately, this moment is about connecting with the person who has passed, which can make scattering ashes a particularly intense—and meaningful—emotional experience. When you’re ready, here are some things to know:

The texture may surprise you

Coming into contact with a loved one’s remains is emotional for everyone. But understanding what to expect can help you process the experience.

When you picture ash you probably think of the dusty material at the bottom of a fireplace or the charred cinders of a campfire. Cremation ashes are different. Strictly speaking, they aren’t ashes at all. The process leaves behind bone remnants that have been ground into sand. Course, dense, and dusty, cremated remains can weigh between four and eight pounds.

Take the direction of the wind into account

The wind has a resonant and symbolic role in many ash-scattering rituals, signifying ideas of departure, flight, and passing. It can also become an issue if you, a member of your group, or bystanders get caught downwind from the ashes. Make sure to choose a location that can accommodate reorienting for wind direction. And be sure to keep an eye on the weather forecast. Many choose to develop a plan B in case the day turns out to be windy or stormy. This is particularly an issue if you are planning to scatter from an airplane or a boat.

Consider scattering just a portion of the ashes

Scattering all of a loved one’s ashes at once is not always necessary, and is more logistically difficult than scattering only a small portion. Retaining some of the ashes creates an opportunity to scatter in more than one location. It can also allow more of those who were close to your loved one to participate in the scattering. And of course, you may want to keep some of the person’s ashes in an urn, which can be a special way to honor and maintain a connection to your loved one.

For many, scattering ashes is an opportunity for closure. Others see it as an act of service. And still others find meaning in helping their loved one become part of something bigger than themselves. As you mourn and celebrate their life, remember that you are not alone in navigating this transition. Your efforts honor the person you loved, and can help you as you process their passing for years to come.

You may be eligible for free bereavement support. Empathy can help with everything from funeral planning to estate administration, with step-by-step guidance and real-time expert support. Many people get free premium access to Empathy as a benefit with their life insurance claim. We partner with New York Life, Guardian Life Insurance Company, Bestow, Lemonade, and other leading carriers. When you make your life insurance claim, talk to your representative about whether Empathy is a benefit they offer.