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April 10, 2019 Beyond The Dash

Scattering Ashes Unlawfully: Should You Do It?

Legal considerations when spreading ashes in meaningful places

Scattering Ashes Unlawfully: Should You Do It?
Spreading a loved one's ashes in a meaningful natural location is a special moment. Check with local laws and property owners before you scatter cremains. (Getty Images)


Scattering ashes is an increasingly popular way to lay a loved one to rest. Nearly 50% of respondents in a recent survey indicated they preferred cremation over all other means of handling remains. There are many options for cremated remains. Remains may be stored and displayed in a decorative urn, separated into multiple urn caskets or jewellery pieces, scattered somewhere meaningful, buried at sea or even shot into space on a rocket

For many families, spreading ashes somewhere meaningful is the best way to pay respect to the person who has passed. However, there are legal considerations to make before going ahead and spreading a loved one's cremains. Depending on the state and location, you may have to ask for permission to scatter ashes in your desired location. 

What does the law say?

Cremains do not present any health risk to the public or the environment.  Ashes quickly dissipate in wind, grass, and water. As long as you are spreading them in a natural location, such as a garden, in the ocean or a forest, it's unlikely that cremains will be noticeable by passersby. However, you are legally required to check with the property owner of that space before depositing ashes anywhere on their land.

Once you've found the perfect natural location to spread cremains, find out who owns the property and make arrangements to gain permission. 

  • National Parks

Scattering of ashes is permitted at most national parks. However, you still need permission of the park ranger, and in some cases, a permit. Check with the individual location for exact requirements.

  • Private Property

If the property where you want to spread your loved one's ashes belongs to you, you are free to scatter ashes anywhere you like. Likewise, if the property owner is a family member or friend, you don't need to worry about getting formal permission—verbal permission should suffice. 

Amusement parks, stadiums, botanical gardens and similar venues are private property. Try to obtain written permission from the property owner to ensure the moment is not interrupted by a well intending security guard. 

  • Burial at sea

It is legal to scatter ashes at sea, but there are rules about how far off the coast you must be. Those who wish to be buried at sea can arrange a charter boat with a qualified crew, or use their own boat or vessel. 

  • Graveyards

Some graveyards allow spreading of ashes, and some do not. To ensure you are acting in accordance with local property laws, contact the owner of the graveyard or associated funeral home. 

Contacting the owner of private property

Most people are more than willing to grant permission to scatter ashes. Grief is a universal human experience, and many people will do what they can to work with your family, if a location on their property is meaningful to you. However, they may ask that you avoid certain areas, be mindful of other guests to the property, or have other instructions. 

Depending on your family's wishes, however, scattering ashes in your desired location may not be possible. For example, it is unlikely you'll be able to get permission to scatter ashes anywhere the wind may blow it onto other members of the public, like from the top of a roller coaster, or the Empire State Building. It can never hurt to ask the property owner, though. They may have accommodated families with similar requests in the past.

When the answer is 'No'

If the property owner refuses to grant permission (or doesn't respond to your request), it's best to think of an alternate location. Many families prefer natural locations that are publicly accessible, so they may visit the site where the ashes were spread. Alternatively, you can also keep ashes stored in an urn at home, or spread the cremains on a family property. 

What is the penalty for breaking the law?

Despite local laws, and respecting property ownership, many people spread ashes illegally each year with no consequences. Generally, there is an assumption of  'don't ask, don't tell' when it comes to spreading ashes in natural areas that are unprotected and not commercialized. 

You'd be more likely to get away with scattering ashes in a remote area of a national park, than on the grounds of Disneyland, for example. 

For those who have a strong desire to spread ashes where no permission has been granted, the benefit usually outweighs the risk of mischief or trespassing charges and accompanying fines. That said, it's best to ask for permission and respect property owners' wishes regarding cremains. 

Aside from facing possible charges or fines, you may experience an unwelcome interruption from an angry property owner while you are spreading a loved one's ashes, if you don't have permission. This kind of scene should be avoided at all costs, which is why getting permission is important. 

The takeaway

Even though ashes don't affect public health or cause an eyesore, you are still required to investigate who owns the property where you intend to spread cremains. Asking the owner of the property is the correct and legal way to ensure you are acting in accordance with local laws. You can always spread cremains on your own property, or preserve them in an urn. 

Ultimately, it’s important to be aware of the possible consequences. Returning a loved one's body to the earth is an emotional moment, and it's best if you have the space to be fully present in the process.

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