Checklist for a Scattering Ashes Ceremony

Hold a ceremony to scatter a loved one's ashes can give you closure.

After the death of a friend or loved one, many people find closure and relief in scattering the ashes in a favorite place or memorable location. Once you’ve decided where you’d like to spread the ashes and make sure that it’s legal to do so, it’s a good idea to plan out the event before the day arrives. Most ash scattering ceremonies include readings or poems, music, sharing memories, and finally releasing the cremains. Thinking in advance about what you intend to say, who will release the ashes, and other little details will help the event go smoothly and avoid any uncomfortable silences where no one is quite sure what to do.

Use this checklist for an ash scattering ceremony for your loved ones to help guide your plans.

✔ Decide What Type of Service You’d Like

People of many different faiths and walks of life choose to be cremated, and, often, there is no firm requirement for what must be included in an ash spreading ceremony. If the deceased was religious, you may want to speak to the minister or religious leader to determine whether there should be a formal ceremony that follows. Even if there is not, you may still want to incorporate the person’s faith and beliefs into the event.

If the deceased was not religious or if there is no formal ritual, think about how simple or formal you’d like the event to be. Many people plan somewhat informal ceremonies for scattering ashes, especially if the ashes are to be spread in a park or other natural location.

There are several types of ash spreading ceremonies you can organize. Choose the event you believe best represents the personality and life of your loved one. Check out some of the common, and creative, ideas we have come across:

  • Setting off Fireworks: The beautiful display is symbolic of life, lasting only for a moment but making an impact.
  • Casting Ceremony: This is your typical ash scattering ceremony, one in which you let the wind take your loved one wherever it pleases.
  • Airplane Release: Whether you wish to scatter the cremains yourself or prefer for a pilot to do the spreading (often a better option), airplane release is one of the best ways to disperse the deceased across his or her favorite city.
  • Trenching the Ashes: A well-known practice, a trenching ash scattering service is when you dig a hole, or trench, to place your beloved’s ashes.
  • Lanterns to Guide Them Home: Say goodbye to your loved one by releasing paper lanterns into the sky while scattering his or her ashes. The light represents the deceased finding their way to heaven.
  • Let the Water Take Them Away: Place the cremains in paper boats and place them in a stream, or spread the ashes across the river. Then, allow the water to wash away your grief and carry your loved one to peace.
  • Raking into the Soil: An environmentally-conscious idea, raking ceremonies are when you spread the cremains and rake them into the ground where they lay, whether that is in a garden, the beach, or his or her favorite place.
  • Tie in Symbolism with Nature: Some families choose to release a flock of doves to embody serenity and hopefulness. Others like to think of an ash spreading ceremony as a metamorphosis of the spirit or a transition in life, so they bring butterflies to the event.
  • Set Them Free: Join the Eternal Ascent Society in sending your loved one high up into the sky at 30,000 feet in a helium-filled balloon. The high altitude will cause the balloon to chill and pop, which will set the cremains free.

✔ Choose Someone to Lead the Ceremony

Even if you’re planning a simple, informal ash scattering ceremony, it’s a good idea to have one person as the designated leader. You may choose to take on this role, if you’re planning the event, or ask someone else to lead. If you’re planning a religious ceremony, a minister or member of the clergy may be a good choice. You might want to consider hiring a celebrant if you don’t think you’d be comfortable being the leader.

The leader’s job is simple: to know what the plan is and to keep the event moving forward as expected. He or she may simply keep things on track or take a more active role, reading a poem or prayer, giving the eulogy, or participating in another way. Having someone who knows what comes next can help eliminate any uncomfortable silences or other uncertainties.

✔ Determine the Order of Events

Once you’ve decided on the formality of the ash scattering ceremony and who will lead it, you need to determine what will happen during the event. Decide if you'll read prayers or psalms during the ceremony If you’re going with a pre-planned religious ceremony, you may still have the opportunity to choose prayers or psalms, music, and other elements. Decide if you’ll read prayers or psalms during the ceremony. For a ceremony that you’re planning from scratch, consider if you want to include the following:

  • Prayers or psalms
  • Poems
  • Music
  • A eulogy
  • A time to share memories
  • Tokens to give guests

When choosing prayers, poems, and music, consider whether the deceased had favorites that might be appropriate for the occasion. If not, there are many general bereavement poems, songs, and prayers that can be very meaningful. Make sure that you have a copy of anything that will be read, including prayers and the eulogy, if one will be given. If you decide to play music, make sure that you have the right equipment to play it, and there is enough amplification available so that everyone can hear what is being played.

Consider who will be invited to share memories of the deceased. For a small gathering, there may be plenty of time for everyone to speak. For more formal events, you might invite one or two people to speak, or only have the family share their memories of the departed.

✔ Make Sure People Know What’s Expected Ahead of Time

If you’d like the guests to share stories or read a poem, let them know in advance of the ash spreading ceremony so that they can be prepared. Some people feel comfortable speaking extemporaneously, with little preparation, but others will need time to plan. Once you and your guests are in the middle of the ceremony, you may be overwhelmed with emotion and not be able to think of anything to say. Having some time to write down notes or select a poem that you’d like to read can help minimize embarrassment and uncomfortable moments.

✔ Decide Who Will Spread the Ashes

Decide ahead of time who will be responsible for scattering the ashes during the ceremony. You may want just one individual to be responsible, be it the leader, a family member, or yourself. Some families carry a decorative scoop and each person has the opportunity to release some of the cremains.

Whoever is responsible for this task during the ash scattering ceremony should use caution before opening the urn. If the ashes are to be released into the air, it’s important to pay attention to the wind and make sure that it’s blowing the ashes away from any people or objects. This can be a challenge on a boat, where the wind may be stronger than expected and change direction quickly. No one wants to have to dust cremains off their clothing or out of their hair, let alone off the deck of the boat. If you’re spreading the ashes on or near the ground, make sure that you choose a location away from people who might be upset if they find the cremains after you’ve left.

✔ Examine the Urn


Take a look at the urn that you received from the funeral home or crematorium. Is it sealed? How difficult is it to open? You don’t want to be standing in the middle of the ceremony, only to find that you can’t get the container open. Are the cremains in a sealed bag inside? If you’ve already moved the ashes into a decorative urn, is the top loose? Have the cremains become packed together over time?

You should examine the urn and its contents at least one day before the ceremony, preferably earlier. You want to give yourself time to fix any problems and come up with alternative ways to transport the cremains, if needed.

Make sure that you can open the urn easily, or find an alternative urn if you cannot. Scattering urns are available and designed to be easy to open while still sealing tight.

  • Check to see if the ashes are in a plastic bag inside the urn. You may choose to leave them this way, but make sure that you’re prepared to open the bag during the ceremony.
  • If the cremains are not in a sealed bag, make sure that the urn itself seals so that it cannot spill during travel to the site of the ceremony.
  • Check to see if the ashes have become compressed. This can happen over time, and will prevent them from flowing out during the ash spreading ceremony. You may need to gently stir the ashes with a spoon or stick of some type to loosen them, which is better done in the privacy of your own home.

✔ Be Prepared for the Location

Think carefully about where the ash scattering ceremony will be held and what you’ll need from a practical point of view. If you’re hiking out into a national park, you’ll want to make sure that everyone attending has comfortable clothes, good walking shoes, water, a hat, sunscreen, and other necessities. You’ll likely need sunscreen and sunglasses on a boat, as well as life preservers for everyone.

Consider your guests as well. Will there be elderly people attending who might need assistance walking or climbing? What about kids — will they stay entertained or will someone need to prevent them from wandering off or playing in an area where they should not be? Is there a place for people to sit, if needed? While you may not be able to be prepared for every possibility, you should think carefully about the practical details of the day and how they will be handled.

✔ Consider Hiring Help

If you're chartering a plane to scatter the ashes, ask the company about their past experiences.

If all of this planning seems like too much work for you, especially if your loss is recent, consider hiring someone to help. There are a number of event planners, funeral directors, and others who may be able to assist you. When you hire someone who has handled an ash scattering ceremony or similar event in the past, they will likely know what works well and any little details that often get missed.

Talk to the charter company if you’re hiring a boat or plane for the ceremony. Many of these business have worked with other families who want to scatter ashes, and they can give you helpful advice. As with event planners, these professionals may have witnessed other ceremonies and know the potential problems and how you can avoid them.

✔ Keep Your Guests Informed

You’ve planned your ceremony and notified those people who will speak, but it’s still helpful to let any other guests know what’s going on. When you start the service, have the leader take just a minute to explain the order of events so that everyone is prepared. You could have programs printed up for a more formal event, but in most cases, just a brief explanation is all that you need.

For example, the person leading the ash spreading ceremony might simply say, “Welcome everyone, to this ceremony to remember John and scatter his ashes on the lake that he loved. We will all get on board the boat together, then travel out to the center of the lake. The pilot will tell us when we’ve arrived. At that time, I’ll read a poem, John’s son Dan will say a few words about his dad, and then anyone else who would like to will have the opportunity to speak. Once everyone has spoken, Dan will release the ashes into the water. This will be followed by the reading of John’s favorite psalm. We’ll then return to the shore. Then entire trip should take about an hour, and you are all welcome to join us at Dan’s house following the ceremony for refreshments.”

Discuss: Checklist for a Scattering Ashes Ceremony

6 People Discussing
  • This was very helpful

    Comment by Kara — September 10, 2017 @ 3:23 am

  • What do you call it…… scattering if the ashes? Celebrating his life? Setting him free? I need a title for an invite.

    Comment by Sandra Waltrip — May 15, 2018 @ 9:13 pm

  • I suggest calling it a “[name]’s Homecoming”. This may comfort family and others who are suffering such a loss.

    Comment by Grace Zangara — June 23, 2018 @ 12:25 pm

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    shared this great article at at this time.

    Comment by __ ____ — June 29, 2019 @ 3:16 am

  • Thank you so much. We are doing the releasing ceremony. And I want to make sure it’s special for my beautiful Mommy. Thank you

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