Tipsheet From the Pros
A Guide to Scattering Cremated Remains
Think twice the next time a family suggests accompanying a pilot on an aerial
scattering, says Dan Katz of Airway to Heaven, a Van Nuys, Calif.-based scattering
service. More often than not the experience ends up being traumatic.
“Aside from the legal questions licensing and location of the scattering, [many
people] have told me how the ashes have blown back inside the plane,” says Katz. “This
has been anything from a messy inconvenience to a personal horror for the family
True, there are ways to prevent blow-back, Katz says, such as funnelling the remains
through directed tubes. But he also adds that many pilots are not licensed to perform
scattering services and thus may not know how to do it properly. (Typically, “a family
member whose loved one is cremated simply asks a pilot friend with a Cessna 172 to take
Mom up and scatter her,” says Katz.)
That’s why you’d do well to suggest that families should instead go to the airport to
watch the plane take off, then watch from the ground as the remains are scattered, Katz
says. But even then he’s always careful to have family members sign a waiver with the
understanding that the flight may be delayed or even cancelled due to inclement weather,
mechanical failure or air traffic control.
Here are four more tips on scattering:
1. Educate your families on their scattering options.
The next time you receive a family that isn’t sure what their scattering options are,
run this list by them (courtesy of Jeff Staab, a funeral director of 20 years and current
owner of Cremation Solutions, a scattering urn company based in Arlington, Vt.):
Casting—the act of simply tossing the ashes to the wind. Casting is usually
performed by one person while others look on, although it can also be done by a group, in
which family members take turns doing partial scatterings. Just be sure to check the wind
and cast downwind.
Trenching—a form of scattering done in a shallow trench or groove dug in the soil.
The trench is raked over at the end of the ceremony. “You can get creative and dig the
person’s name in the soil, maybe inside a heart, then fill the void with the ashes,” Staab
Ringing—the act of scattering cremated remains around an object, in a ring shape,
with or without a trench. Rings are commonly scattered around trees, shrubs and memory
Raking—a scattering method in which remains are poured evenly onto loose soil and
then raked into the ground. Many cemeteries offer this service in scattering gardens,
Green burial—a relatively new approach in which remains are deposited into a hole
dug in the ground. Biodegradable scattering urns are sometimes also placed into the
Water scattering—the most popular type of scattering, according to Staab. (Number
two: on the family property.)
Over a body of water, a water-soluble urn can enhance the experience. These urns are
specifically designed to gradually disperse the ashes back to the sea. Ashes can be cast
directly into the water, but will often blow back at the boat and cling to the sides of the
boat. This can be both frustrating and unsightly. A water-soluble urn will usually float for
several minutes then slowly sink where it will degrade or melt back to the sea. The
survivors will often toss flowers or petals as a final tribute as the urn slowly drifts away.
There are professionals with boats available that will do either private water scatterings
or create an event were the survivors may voyage and participate. Your funeral director
will usually have the contacts to set this up in your area.
Aerial scattering—Usually done by professionals, this is done when the ashes are
cast from a private plane. Some of them will coordinate with your ceremony to fly over
and cast the ashes at a specified place and time. On clear days a cloud of ash can be seen
from the ground. Most professionals will provide a certificate of the place and time and
even photos. Some will allow passengers to attend the scattering for an extra fee.
2. Ask the family plenty of questions before you make arrangements.
Don’t be reluctant to ask the family specific questions to get them thinking about the
service, suggests Staab. Four questions he always poses:
1. Will the family gather together at the time of the scattering?
2. Will more than one person scatter the cremated body?
3. Will the gathering be at the place of the scattering or somewhere else, either before
4. Will the family do more than one scattering if there are relatives or friends in
another part of the country?
3. As always, be extra cautious about identifying remains.
Cremation is irreversible, and so is scattering. So be vigilant about keeping track of
whose ashes are in which urn.
Case in point: in California, a woman named Betsy Mleynek recently sued
McCormick Mortuary of Redondo Beach for mistakenly scattering her mother’s cremated
remains in the wrong place and at the wrong time. “They just didn’t care,” Mleynek told
the Los Angeles Times.
Mortuary officials admitted they accidentally switched Mleynek’s mother’s remains
with those of another person and reimbursed her to the tune of $1,750. The mortuary also
offered to charter a boat and deliver Mleynek’s family to the spot in the ocean where the
remains had been scattered.
That wasn’t good enough for Mleynek, who sued the mortuary for emotional
damages. But the mortuary dodged a bullet: in March, a jury declined to award any
damages. (Incidentally—and shockingly—the trial revealed that the roof of the cremation
room collapsed shortly before Mleynek’s mother was cremated. The crematory employee
who mislabeled the urns blamed his error on the fact that he was working amid roof
4. Know the laws in your state or city.
Each jurisdiction has its own set of guidelines on what you can and cannot do. The
chart on pages 3-4 outline the rules are in each state. ♦