More People Are Getting Cremated, But What Happens to The Ashes?

A year after my mother died, my family spread some of her ashes off the Irish coast and decided to spread the remaining ashes later. That was in 2011.

When my father died four years later, he also chose cremation. I poured some of my dad’s ashes in the new cement outside my home. I also received some ashes from another family member.

I now have ashes from three loved ones. And I don’t know what to do with them.

Almost 60 percent of Americans were cremated in 2022, and the number is continuing to rise. But outside of religious rituals, figuring out what you can and can’t do with ashes can be difficult.

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Urns and columbariums

Many funeral homes or crematoriums return ashes, often called “cremains,” in a simple container. Urns generally cost between $50 and $150, but you could spend thousands for custom urns that are encrusted in crystals. You can even turn a sentimental item – like your mom’s sewing machine – into an urn.

Burying an urn at a cemetery can cost in the range of $350 to $2,500. The cost of a columbarium, which can be a room, building, or wall for the interment of ashes, can cost between $300 and $3,000.

Bereaved individuals may instead decide to scatter the ashes, either all at once or over time. The National Funeral Directors Association reports that more than one-third of people who want to be cremated say they’d prefer to have their remains scattered in a sentimental place as opposed to burial or interred in a cemetery or kept in an urn at home.

But sometimes scattering is easier requested than done.

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Getting permission to scatter ashes

If your loved one’s last wish is to be scattered in a special location, make sure you secure the property owner’s permission first. In 2016, an opera-lover chose to memorialize a friend by scattering his ashes in the orchestra pit of the Metropolitan Opera House. Seeing the white powdery substance, officials canceled the performance and evacuated the theater.

Disney officials have asked people to stop scattering human remains in the happiest place on earth. Cubs fans have been known to scatter ashes at Wrigley Field.

Golf courses are a popular scattering spot, but while some courses might let you scatter at a favorite hole or sand trap, many courses prohibit the practice.

The National Park Service allows scattering but with a permit. At Yellowstone National Park, a permit is required and scattering must follow a list of rules, such as scattering only in undeveloped areas and away from campgrounds and hot springs. The rules may be different for state and city parks, so check with local authorities before scattering.

“The rule of thumb is private property, don’t do it without permission,” says Barbara Kemmis, the executive director of Cremation Association of North America. “Public property is a little more of a gray area, but if you can get permission, or if there’s a process to follow, do so.”

When you do scatter, make sure you stand down wind. Some people advise wearing gloves. I liked the feeling of holding the ashes.

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Scattering ashes in a body of water

If you’re considering scattering ashes in the ocean, you’ll need a permit from the Environmental Protection Agency and you can’t release the ashes until you’re at least three nautical miles off the shore. Pet remains aren’t permitted in the ocean.

If spreading ashes on a cruise is an appealing option, many cruise lines have procedures you can follow.

States regulate burials in inland waters, such as lakes and rivers. Contact the state environmental agency, or mortuary board to determine the rules for scattering ashes into non-ocean waters. Rules also vary by country, so check in advance before traveling abroad to scatter.

If you’re unsure about what to do, ask the funeral director for names of companies that offer scattering services.

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Turning ashes into plants

Cremains are not good for plants, experts say. But many people have the mistaken impression that ashes are essentially fertilizer to plant a tree, says Mallory McDuff, professor of environmental education at Warren Wilson College and author of “Our Last Best Act,” a book about planning for end of life.

Cremated remains are highly alkaline. “When scattering them on top of soil, they can actually smother foliage and plant life,” Caitlyn Hauke, a board member of the Green Burial Council, wrote in an email.

You can alter the alkalinity of cremains by adding various mixtures that allow you to combine ashes with soil. These additives and biodegradable urns are sold by companies including Let Your Love Grow, Bios Urn or the Living Urn.

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Jewelry, tattoos and fireworks

There are several nontraditional options for ashes, but they typically only use a small portion of ashes.

Cremation jewelry options, such as necklaces, bracelets, rings and even diamonds, can range from a couple hundred dollars to thousands. Ashes can be turned into art, such as paperweights or glass sculptures.

“Jewelry and glass art are definitely popular because they can keep their person close and even wear them,” says Kemmis.

Greenlawn Funeral Home in Missouri offers to turn cremains into fireworks, charging $4,000 to $13,000, for a two- to 15-minute display.

The Kenosha Tattoo Company in Wisconsin offers cremation tattoos, which use a small amount of fine dust in the ink. Pet cremains can also be used, according to Jon Principe, the owner.

There aren’t reliable studies showing whether the process is safe. Principe says his tattoo company has done more than five hundred cremation tattoos without any complications. If you choose this option, keep the ashes sealed in the original packaging from the crematorium, Principe said.

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Make a plan for your remains

Whatever option you prefer, make sure to communicate it to your loved ones. Don’t put instructions in a will, because in some cases decisions about cremation, burial and scattering need to be made before the reading of the will.

People often say “scatter me” to their loved ones, said Kemmis, but don’t provide any additional direction.