Letting Go - A complete guide to scattering ashes of your loved one

Scattering the ashes of a loved one over ground, water or in the air is an observance that many families and individuals take part in after suffering a loss. We’ve put together a complete guide that will not only help families on making the decision on whether or not to scatter the ashes of their loved one but also give them a how to go about arranging a ceremonial scattering of the ashes and make aware any rules, regulations or permissions that need to be gathered beforehand.

A brief history of Scattering Ashes

The release of the cremated ashes of an individual back to the earth can be traced back to the early Greeks and Hindu. It was customary for Greek family and friends to release a small amount of cremated ashes onto the ground at the memorial service and for the Hindu faith, releasing the ashes into the Ganges River was highly desired and reserved for those individuals or high ranking officials deemed worthy. The practice of scattering the ashes of loved one’s is still prevalent today and the release may be something as simple as a small family ceremony to something much grander and large scale such as releasing the ashes from a hot air balloon.

Should we Scatter Ashes or not?

There really is no definitive answer as to why a family should scatter the ashes of their loved ones. It ultimately comes down to being a choice that is made on either the wishes of the deceased or the wishes of the family - or even a combination of the two. Some families may have religious beliefs that dictate that the ashes be returned to the earth (ashes to ashes dust to dust) while for others, having all of the ashes together in one place keeps their loved one ‘whole’.

Religious or Cultural Beliefs on Scattering

Why we should

Some religions believe that the ashes of the body should be returned to the earth and the soul of the person does not stay with the body.

Why we should not

Some faiths or religions do not support cremation or with some, such as with the Muslim religion, cremation is forbidden.

Are you 'OK' with separating the ashes?

It may be a good idea

Larger families may wish to share in the ashes of the deceased or choose a location to scatter ashes that is central to all family members where the deceased can be ‘visited’.

It may NOT be a good idea

A family may feel that by parting with some of the ashes their loved one is not left ‘whole’ or intact. For instance, with the death of a child, the parents may not want to part with any of the ashes, sharing or scattering, in an effort to keep their child complete and with them as physically as possible.

Consider your loved ones wishes

Clearly Yes

The deceased may have clearly stated that they wanted a portion of their ashes scattered at a specific location. The wishes of the deceased should always be honored as closely as possible.

Clearly No

The deceased was clear about not wanting their ashes separated or about not wanting to be cremated. Again, as much as possible, the wishes of the deceased should be respected.

Scattering is mostly about the Location

It should 'Feel' right

If the deceased had a favorite vacation spot, loved the ocean, was most at home around a campfire in the woods, consider paying homage to something they loved and releasing a part of their ashes in that place.

You can always postpone it

With some, it can be hard to pinpoint a certain spot or location or passion they had. Scattering the ashes of a loved one should not be something that is forced and it’s not a must do. If there isn’t somewhere special that comes to mind, than hold onto the ashes. Something may come to mind down the road and it may not.

Here’s some tips to help make a decision:

Ask your loved one.

For those with terminally ill family members or situations where preplanning services is taking place, the best option is to gently ask what they would like for services. Most people know if they would like to be cremated or buried and it’s okay to ask what other types of commemorations they would like. It’s a wonderful opportunity to allow them to reminisce about their life and it might be during one of these recollections that the question can be posed, “Would you like having some of your ashes scattered there?” It might be a question they hadn’t thought of and it opens up the door to any final wishes they may have. Always use kindness and compassion and patience. And it’s a good idea to have a pad of paper and a pen to write things down. Be as detailed as possible so that when that time comes you are able to carry out their wishes to the best of your ability.

Talk with the family.

It’s important to sit and talk with the entire family and get their individual feedback. Typically, the wishes of the spouse and children supersede all other opinions and that should be respected. Remember that immediate family may not be ready to part with the ashes immediately or even at all so it’s not a conversation to force upon them right away. Use discretion, honor their wishes and keep your personal feelings out of it. Remember that they are hurting and need time to grieve.

Time is often on your side.

Scattering the ashes is not something that needs to be done on a time schedule. Families may choose to wait for a specific date or anniversary to spread some of the ashes or release the ashes or they may want to incorporate releasing the ashes as part of the memorial service. Again, there is no right or wrong answer and if it’s not something the family is ready to take part in right now that doesn’t mean that in six months or a year they will feel the same. Exercise compassion and understanding.

Places to Scatter Ashes

The options are endless when it comes to choosing where to scatter the ashes of your loved one. Some ideas are:

Scatter ashes at home

At home.

For many, our home is our sanctuary and some of the ashes can absolutely be scattered at home. Maybe they loved to garden or spent hours in the barn, took an afternoon nap in the hammock in the back yard. A small amount of ashes can be scattered at home in an area that they frequented and helps to provide a memorial that is convenient and where family can visit whenever they choose.

Scatter ashes at a vacation home

Vacation area.

Perhaps you went to Maine every year and spent a week in the mountains. Or maybe you took a ride up the coast from California to Oregon. It’s a place that holds special memories and ashes can absolutely be scattered in a vacation spot. Choose a container that allows for easy release of the ashes and maybe on your first trip back to your vacation spot without your loved one is when you choose to scatter the ashes. It allows for a part of your loved one to still be with you and take part in something that you did together.

Scatter Ashes at a professional sports arena

Professional Sports Arena.

Most college and professional sports arenas do not allow for the release or scattering of ashes on their respective fields. We recommend that you contact the administrative offices of the arena and speak with them directly.

Scatter ashes at a golf course

Golf Course.

Some golf courses do allow for a small amount of ashes to be scattered on the course and others do not. Some courses adopt a ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policy and consider what they don’t know won’t hurt them. The best course of action is to call the golf course directly and ask to speak to the groundskeeper if releasing a small amount of ashes on the course is allowed or prohibited and plan accordingly.

Scatter ashes in the forest

Public or National Forest.

The Forest Service has no rules or regulations regarding the scattering of ashes in a national forest. However, they do recommend that you check your state or local laws to see if scattering ashes is allowed or prohibited.

Scatter ashes at the beach

At the Beach.

The beach is a great option for those that loved the ocean, frequented the beach or were most at home with the ebb and flow of the waves. The ashes can be released into the sand.

Scatter ashes at Sea

At Sea

The EPA states that cremated remains can be released into the ocean as long as the releasing of the ashes takes place three nautical miles from land. Additionally, any materials such as flowers and wreaths that are decomposable in a marine environment may also be released. Any burials at sea must be reported within 30 days to the EPA Region in writing. For more information visit the following links:

Scatter ashes from the air

From the Air.

The FAA does not prohibit scattering ashes from airplanes when it does not pose a hazard or threat to land or people. However, exercise caution. Scattering ashes from a plane without proper care and attention can cause the ashes to come back into the plane or back into the face or the body of the person releasing the ashes.

Scatter ashes in a foreign country

In Another Country.

If traveling with a small amount of ashes to another country, the best bet is just to contact the individual airline and speak with them directly. Most airlines allow you to carry the ashes in a carry-on and speaking with them directly and having the facts can save you time and headaches at security.

Scatter ashes in a National Park

National Parks.

Every national park is different and some allow it and some don’t. See the chart below for the top ten national parks and their policies on scattering ashes on the park property.

National ParkPolicyLink to National ParkLink to Policy and/or Permit ApplicationContact Information
Great Smoky Mountains
  • Ashes may be scattered and not buried and must be no less than 300 feet from any buildings, towers or historic sites.
Link to National Park
Link to Policy and/or Permit Application
Contact Information
Grand Canyon
  • Ashes may be scattered in underdeveloped areas of the park or by airplane on routes approved by the FAA.
Link to National Park
Link to Policy and/or Permit Application
Contact Information
Rocky Mountain
  • Permit is required from the Chief Rangers office. Location must be away from developed areas and at least 200 feet from water source.
Link to National Park
Link to Policy and/or Permit Application
Contact Information
  • Scattering of ashes must be out of sight of public areas, must be at least 100 yards from water source.
Link to National Park
Link to Policy and/or Permit Application
Contact Information
  • Ashes may be scattered in areas of the park that are underdeveloped or by airplane in accordance with the FAA.
Link to National Park
Link to Policy and/or Permit Application
Contact Information
Zion Canyon
  • $25 application fee. Application must be approved and permit will be issued.
Link to National Park
Link to Policy and/or Permit Application
Contact Information
Olympic National Park
  • A permit is required and there is no fee.
Link to National Park
Link to Policy and/or Permit Application
Contact Information
Grand Teton
  • Scattering must be done in complete dispersal and at least 100 yards from water. No containers or urns may be buried.
Link to National Park
Link to Policy and/or Permit Application
Contact Information
  • Permit is required and there is no charge for a memorial permit.
Link to National Park
Link to Policy and/or Permit Application
Contact Information
  • Scattering ashes may only be dispersed in underdeveloped areas and not within 200 feet of water source. No marker or memorial may be placed at the scattering.
Link to National Park
Link to Policy and/or Permit Application
Contact Information

How-To Scatter the Ashes - A guide and checklist

A guide to help get you started

Step #1 - Have a family meeting.

Gather all the immediate family members or friends that played an important role in the life of the deceased and start brainstorming ideas. Are you going to choose one location or multiple locations? If going with multiple locations, place the locations in order of preference based off of ease of access and importance. Have a ceremony or a celebration or keep it simple and low-key? If having a ceremony, keep in mind the number of people and giving people ample time to make arrangements. Get input from everyone and come up with a concise plan that respects the wishes of the deceased, pays homage to who they were and what mattered to them and allows the family a personal way to show their love and pay their respects.

Step #2 - Choose a date.

For some, maybe you want to make it part of the memorial service. Maybe you choose to have it BE your memorial service. Maybe you’d like to wait until a special holiday, birthday or anniversary date. Often times that perfect day presents itself and is not only a beautiful commemoration of the deceased but also provides a day that in the future, gives families a beautiful memory to look back on and share.

Step #3 -Choose a container for scattering.

How are you going to scatter the ashes? Look into a specially designed scattering urn or choose some sort of container that will accommodate how you are going to release the ashes. Are you going to sprinkle them? Are you going to cast them into the air? Consider the elements when casting ashes into the air as a windy location can cause the ashes to fly back onto the person releasing them. Is everyone going to release some ashes? Know ahead of time how you want to go forward with releasing the ashes.

Step #4 - Decide how to transport the ashes.

The ashes can be brought to the location in an urn but often times the ashes are either place in a bag in the urn or loose in the urn. It might be a good idea to either choose a scattering urn or place a small amount of ashes in a portable container ahead of time, leaving the rest of the ashes at rest in the urn at home. Are you comfortable with loved ones reaching into the urn to pull out the ashes? If not, bring small cups where ashes can be scooped out, bring disposable gloves or even divide the ashes ahead of time in small containers or plastic bags to allow for easy distribution amongst those assisting in scattering. Can you scatter ashes from the urn? Have a plan with how you will transition from transporting the ashes to scattering the ashes and what makes the most sense.

Step #5 - Assign responsibilities.

Depending on how you are going to scatter the ashes, where you are going to scatter the ashes and everything in between, having additional helping hands can keep one person from being overwhelmed. Some tasks that may need to be assigned could be:

Choosing and gathering the music and any readings.

Plan a luncheon afterwards or dinner at a favorite restaurant or at a home.

Call about any necessary permissions if releasing in a state park, any waivers or rules that need to be followed.

Contacting invitees. Make a list of who is invited and task someone with updating the yes’s, no’s, etc.

Cameras, flowers, paper lanterns. Give someone the responsibility to make sure that any additional ways to make the ceremony special are taken care of. Choose someone detail oriented to take care of the often forgotten details that help to capture and commemorate the ceremony.

Step #6 - Arrive prepared on the day of the scattering

Do you have everything you will need?

In addition to the ashes, do you have what is needed to scatter the ashes? i.e. small bags or cups, scattering urn, etc.

Bring the detailed items that make the ceremony special.

Remember the music, the readings, a camera, any flowers or additions to the ceremony such as paper lanterns, candles, a lighter.

Check the weather.

Do you need umbrellas, sweatshirts, jackets, hats or gloves, sunblock? Know what you’re in for so that you can be as comfortable as possible and keep your focus on the ceremony itself and not physical discomfort.

Double check on times or paperwork.

Remember any waivers or permissions and make sure that everything is in order. If driving locally, double check traffic reports and give yourself ample time to arrive safely and in a timely manner - especially if you are a guest of the ceremony.

Step #7 - Scatter the ashes

Be aware of the wind!

Make sure that you are not standing in a place where the ashes will be blown back onto the body or onto anyone else. Have others gather back behind from where the ashes are being released, especially if the ashes are being cast into the air.

It is ok to touch the ashes.

Gently brush any residue from your hands if the ashes were physically touched in lieu of being released from a bag or scattering urn.

Give others time.

For some it can be a relatively quick process but others may choose to reflect, cry, say a prayer and take their time.