Everything You Need To Know About Planning A Scattering Ceremony

Did you know that more than half of Americans choose to be cremated nowadays? According to the National Funeral Director’s Association.

If you’re reading this, your loved one is most likely one of those people and you’re in charge of taking care of their ashes. Planning a trip to scatter a loved one’s remains can be an emotional rollercoaster. Experiencing waves of emotions or grief during your trip is normal. Which is why researching ahead of time allows you to be more in the moment.

One thing my Papa loved to talk about during the last few years of his life was his ashes being spread in Death Valley. “I’m going to be spread in Death Valley and enjoy the hot weather forever. Isn’t that right Sweety Pie?” Something I heard frequently… I just didn’t expect it to happen this soon. A couple weeks after his death I realized I had to make a trip down there to honor his wish. I was dreading it. The thought of planning this trip made my stomach upset because I didn’t know what to expect. My hope is that this information will help make your planning and trip easier.

TOPICS

  1. Location Ideas
  2. How To Scatter Ashes
  3. Planning The Scattering Ceremony
  4. Things To Think About
  5. Personal Story – What I did

Side note: In 2020, I found a casket for $10,000 and the cheapest I saw was $2,000. A cremation funeral in Oregon cost about $3,000 in the year 2020, but they can be as low as $450—it just depends on what you want.

If you are looking for a resource in Oregon for funeral homes and cremation processes, check out DFS Memorials. They offer lower priced direct cremation packages, work with local funeral homes, cremation providers, and funeral counselors to lower the costs.

There are 2 ways to spread your loved one remains 

  • Hire a company to scatter them for you
  • Spread them yourself – what this blog is focused on

1. Location Ideas

You don’t need an exact spot, but it’s helpful to have a general area and a plan on how to get there. When we left for our trip, I already had a spot picked out. After a couple days in the park I found another area that seemed more fitting. Sometimes the original spot doesn’t work out and that’s okay!

  • Cemeteries

A cemetery can be an option whether your loved one’s memorial service was held there or not. Permission is needed and rules vary because some cemeteries are owned by the city and others are privately owned. Most have designated areas to scatter, like a garden—just make sure you are respectful and aren’t scattering over another gravesite. Contact the cemetery for all the rules and process.

  • Lakes, Rivers, Streams

These bodies of water take a bit more research than the ocean. Some inland waterways allow scattering of ashes while others don’t, and some require a permit. Check with the local city government or EPA to find out if a specific body of water has any laws or requires permission. This is a good spot for people who loved to fish, swim, kayak or enjoyed any other water activity.

  • National Parks

Most national parks allow scattering of ashes, but you may need a permit depending on the park. It takes about 30 to 60 days to hear back. Permits can be expensive, like in Death Valley National Park where it costs $300. Some locations within the parks prohibit scattering ashes so it’s wise to have a backup spot just in case. Respect the park rules and contact a ranger if this is an option you’re considering. A ranger will help you determine the areas you are allowed to scatter ashes in. You are not allowed to air scatter within national park boundaries or within 100 yards of a body of water, developed facility, trail and road. Make sure not to leave anything besides the cremains behind. You may need to provide a Certificate of Cremated Remains with the Special Use Permit application. This is a good location for those who loved recreating in the outdoors.

  • Ocean

You can always scatter cremains in the ocean, but you can’t put non-biodegradable materials in the water. Flowers should be real and have no other materials attached to them. Ashes must also be scattered at least 3 nautical miles from shore. You need to give a 30-day notice to the United States Environmental Protection Agency to obtain a MPRSA general permit, but there is no application to fill out—unlike National Parks. This is a good option for those who loved the ocean, deep sea fishing, sailing, crabbing or scuba diving. Here is the EPA’s Burial at Sea information.

  • Private Property

Perhaps scattering your loved one’s ashes on a family member’s or your own land or garden bed is an option. If it is your own property, you don’t need permission. Or maybe someone you know has land along a lake or a field with a view. If it’s someone else’s property, you always have to ask and receive the-ok before proceeding. Theme parks, sports stadiums and colleges are some examples of private property. If you don’t receive permission, you cannot scatter your loved one there.

  • Public Property Owned By City, County or State

City parks, golf courses, public beaches, state parks, forests and waterfronts are some public property spots. Always check the rules by contacting the city, county or state. Undeveloped forests typically have no laws against scattering, but make sure that you are not on private property.

2. How To Scatter Ashes

There are several different ways to scatter your loved one. Research each method a little more to figure out which one will work best for you.

  • Air Scattering
  • Casting
  • Green/Ground Burial
  • Ground Scattering
  • Raking
  • River Scattering
  • Traditional Scattering
  • Tree Urn
  • Trenching
  • Water Burial
  • Water Scattering

The most common ways to scatter are described below.

  • Casting

This is usually what you see happen in the movies. Casting is best done with a scattering tube (or hands) and little bit of wind. It can accidentally occur if there is a gust of wind and you weren’t expecting it—it happens. You can cast cremains over water or the ground. Make sure the wind is blowing away from you, then hold the tube at waist height and start scattering.

One way to involve others is to put the cremains into champagne glasses and “raise a toast.” Everyone can cast at the same time or cast individually after they share a memory.

  • Green/Ground Burial

Dig a hole at least 1 foot deep then pour the ashes into the hole and cover. If you wish to use an urn, you can place a biodegradable one into the hole.

  • Ground Scattering

A common method for scattering ashes and almost the same exact process as casting. Find a spot and pour your loved one’s ashes onto the ground. Some scatter the ashes into a circle or heart shape and have people step into the middle and say a few words. Or you can make a ring around an object like a tree, a memorial, special belongings or whatever else you find fitting.

  • Raking

Popular technique when scattering into a garden or other areas where plants grow. Find a spot with loose dirt, sand or freshly tilled soil and then scatter the ashes over the area. You can take turns with others raking your loved one’s remains back to Mother Earth.

  • River & Water Scattering

Exactly what it sounds like. There are eco-friendly water urns that can be placed into the water, where it floats for a few moments and then sinks to the bottom to biodegrade. Once that happens your loved one’s ashes will disperse throughout the ocean or river. If scattering loose cremains into a river, be sure to face downstream. Keep in mind that the rules for scattering in the ocean and a river/lake are different.

3. Planning The Scattering Ceremony

Having a plan isn’t a bad idea when it comes to spreading your loved one. Not only is this a big life event, but it should also honor their life and your love for each other. One advantage to a scattering ceremony is that you can take as much time as you need.

Are you going to a place for multiple days and sightseeing? Or are you staying local? And no, it’s not illegal to carry or travel with ashes on you… and you aren’t weird or the first person to do it. Keep them out of sight for the respect of others and you will be fine.

  • Picking A Location

Does your loved one have a favorite spot to spend time at? Or a place they always wanted to visit? That may be a good spot for a scattering ceremony. Some people have a wish of where they want to go, like my Papa. Others don’t have a spot so that is then left up to the family. It can be overwhelming trying to pick a place, but there’s no need to rush this process so take your time deciding.

Most locations allow scattering of ashes yet there are spots where this isn’t allowed—especially on private properties like theme parks and athletic stadiums. Be sure to look at city and/or county regulations for public lands, like a city park. Make sure to look up the laws for scattering ashes since they differ between states and some places require a permit. Check by googling “[state/city/county] scattering laws.” Here are Oregon’s laws.

  • Who Do You Want At The Scattering?

Is just you and family members? A partner or a couple of friends? Whoever you bring, make sure they’re comfortable around cremains and are able to support in whatever way you need. Judgement is the last thing you need on this trip.

If there’s one piece of advice I can offer, it’s don’t let others influence who you bring along. Your relationship with your loved one, how you process emotions and grieve may also be a deciding factor in who you ask to accompany you.

  • What To Do During The Scattering

Are you just wanting to scatter the ashes and then go? Or are you trying to spend time at that spot and include traditional funeral rituals? Whatever you choose, make sure it’s something your loved one would enjoy (and you).

If you plan on saying something, think about what you want to say. You don’t know how emotional you’ll be and you don’t want to forget anything important. Also remember to give others a chance to say something if they want to.

Some things you can include

  • enjoy their favorite activity before, during or after
  • flowers – especially if they had a green thumb
  • have someone take photos to remember the little details of the day. You can share these with other family members who didn’t make it
  • photographs of them
  • play their favorite song or a song that reminds you of them
  • poem that they or you enjoy
  • tell a story or reminisce over specific a memory 
  • their favorite candy, drink, food or treat
  • voice recording from them – like a voicemail
  • wear their favorite color
  • wear a piece of their clothing

Knowing a general order of how you want to do things will help everything flow smoothly. Letting others know of your plan is a good idea so they know how to properly support you. Communicating what you need and want is important and necessary during this time.

  • If planning a multi-day trip

First figure out where you going then see if you need a permit or permission. Once you receive permission, research certain spots in that area for ideas–remember you don’t have to have an exact spot before you leave. Now decide how many days, where you’re going to stay and how you are getting there. Camping? A hotel? Flying, driving or train? Making those accommodations 30+ days in advance will most likely save you the most money. Now you can plan the details of the ceremony like who to bring, how to scatter and other things.

4. Things To Think About

  • Be Respectful Of Strangers

Ashes are very recognizable to those who have seen them before. Not to mention they don’t return to Mother Earth right away. When you scatter make sure that you find a private place off the trail/path where others won’t be walking, running, sitting or any other activity. It can be upsetting to think of people trampling over your loved one’s ashes and it’s also disturbing to stumble upon cremated remains during an activity.

  • What The Ashes Look Like

I had never seen human ashes before this. One big thing nobody mentioned to me was that my loved one’s cremains aren’t exactly “ashes.” You think it would be similar to fireplace ash, but it’s actually has a similar texture to sand, small pieces of bone and sticky. Don’t be alarmed when you see these bone fragments as it’s expected.

  • How Much Are You Scattering?

Are you spreading all the ashes or just some of them? Are there family members that you should set cremains aside for? Choosing how much of your loved one you want to spread ahead of time will also help decide what container to use for traveling.

I only scattered some because there are a couple more places I know Papa would love. I also plan on using some to make a diamond ring and garden memorial.

  • Storage

If planning this trip before the cremation process, let the funeral director know and they can help you pick an urn that’s easy to open. You can also ask for a temporary scattering urn and use that during your travels. Anything that can be fully sealed works.

Popular travel containers

  • biodegradable urns
  • coffee can
  • regular urn
  • something specific to them – like a growler or tea tin
  • Ziploc bag

If flying, check airline and TSA container regulations. Last time I checked you had to have a container that can be x-rayed. Whether the cremains can be stored in your carry on or checked bag depends on the airline company. I recommend packing your loved one’s ashes in your carry on bag just in case your luggage goes missing.

Decorating your container is another option.

My mason jar was decorated with a drawing of the photograph of Papa and I’s first kiss. Plus a copy of a note that I wrote him. This way the ashes weren’t visible. One reason I decorated Papa’s mason jar was so that I could carry him in my backpack and pocket to the spots we explored. He went everywhere with us until we let him go. I look at photos now and smile because I know he is there with me, even though someone looking at the photo or near us would never know. Doing this allowed me to feel like we had one last vacation together—my final present from Papa. Making the entire trip very bittersweet and one I’ll never forget.

  • Transfer

I didn’t ask the funeral director ahead of time, but thankfully the urn I have opens easily. Most urns either open from the top or bottom with a twist. While some require a screwdriver. I transferred his remains into a small mason jar with a spoon over a big paper plate while wearing latex gloves. I used a plastic spoon and paper plate so I could recycle them afterwards. 

It’s normal to feel like you need support during this activity, but it’s also fine if you want to do it alone too. Seeing your loved one like this can be overwhelming and probably the first time you’ve seen human ashes. If you have someone that you think would be good support, ask them. Originally, I planned on doing this part alone, but once I sat down, I realized I couldn’t and waited for Nick to come home.

  • How Is Your Sleep Lately? Should You Plan Your Trip Now?

For 3 weeks I didn’t get more than 2 hours of a sleep a day, never more than 30 minutes at a time. I didn’t reach a full 8 hours of sleep until the 2-month mark and frequently experience rough nights still. There was no way I could have planned this trip during the first 3 months. It would have been miserable. If this sounds like you, holding off until you get back to your normal sleep schedule and daytime routine is a good idea.

I highly recommend bringing melatonin or something of the sort. Whether you need it or not, it’s better to be prepared. I thought I would be fine, I was wrong. Most nights I only got 3 hours of sleep and I wish I would have brought some. Staying in your loved one’s favorite spot can have an affect on your sleep.

5. What I Did

  • Where we went: Death Valley National Park – permit required
  • How long the trip was: 9 days
  • How we got to the destination: by car then hiked
  • Scattering method: Casting
  • Things I Brought Along & Did: Made & drink coffee afterwards, ate our favorite candy, took a morning walk, photographs of him, “My Favorite Relative” paper about him from elementary school, wore his Death Valley NP t-shirts, made a playlist of his favorite songs & songs that reminded me of him, the permit, Nick took photos
  • Container: Decorated mason jar
  • Person who accompanied me: Nick

Death Valley was the placed he wished for so that’s where we went. Since it happened to be a national park, the first thing I did was check to make sure we could legally spread his ashes. Death Valley National Park requires a permit and the application should be submitted at least 30 days before. And cost a hefty $300.00, but I had a promise to keep. Once I heard back from the park, we picked a date and decided on how many days we wanted to take for this trip. 5 days camping in the park, 9 days total on the road from Portland, Oregon to Death Valley National Park with a stop in Reno on the way back. There was a particular place Papa mentioned, but once we got there, I realized it wasn’t the vibe I wanted. I planned on scattering him on my birthday then decided I didn’t want that memory on my birthday forever. When we got to the park, I decided I would let my heart choose when it was time to let him go. It decided on the second to last day. On that day we watched the sunrise all together then hiked into the Badlands until we found the perfect spot overlooking the valley (off the footpaths). Here he is able to see the first and last sunlight in the park. As well as take his morning walk through the Badlands to Badwater Basin for his afternoon tanning session and nap in the hottest place on earth. I played the playlist of his favorite songs while scattering and afterwards. We talked about how much we loved him, how silly he was, the things we loved to do together and I read my paper from elementary school. I had Nick take photos before and after and film the scattering. I wanted to be able to look back at this moment and remember exactly what the day looked like. He even read the paper out loud for me as I couldn’t get past the second sentence. When we got back to the car, we made ourselves coffee and ate some candy in his honor. This was another one of the hardest days of my life. It felt like I was saying goodbye all over again. As hard as this was, it was also a blessing to be able to provide him his last wish. It oddly felt like a weight was lifted off my chest and I just knew he was already exploring his favorite place on earth with brand new legs. I got home and felt a sense of peace I hadn’t since he left. I don’t feel entirely whole again, but I do feel like I experienced the closure I had been wanting for the last 4 months. I’m truly thankful he chose me to go on this journey for him. I like to think of it as one last present from him, our final vacation together after 28 wonderful years.

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