With rising cremation rates in the United States, more and more people are interested in scattering their loved one’s ashes as a meaningful way to honor their memory. For many families, scattering ashes at sea or in a lake can represent a release from earthly concerns, a return to nature, and/or commemorate the love that the individual had for the ocean or a particular location. There are potential problems that can arise if you plan to release ashes at sea, however, and a little bit of planning can make the process go more smoothly.
Know Your Local Laws
In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency is responsible for regulating what is put into territorial waters, which extend at least 12 nautical miles (14 miles) from the baseline or low water mark of the land. Waters up to 3 miles from the low water mark are typically regulated by individual states, however. Lakes, ponds, rivers, and other bodies of water within the United States are typically (although not always) regulated by the state or local governments.
This is important because you need to know what the law is regarding scattering ashes in a particular location. The EPA allows for ashes to be scattered at sea past the 3-mile mark without a permit, with some restrictions. You cannot put anything into the water that will not break down quickly (in other words, no plastic or metal objects), for example. You also cannot scatter pet cremains without getting prior permission first.
Within 3 miles of the coastline, however, the rules for scattering ashes at sea can vary by state. Most states do not allow ashes to be spread on the beach, but you may be permitted to spread them 500 yards or more from shore. If you want to spread the ashes in a lake or pond, you’ll need to check with local authorities to find out if they have any specific regulations that you need to follow.
Stick to Materials that Break Down Quickly
No matter where you scatter ashes at sea, make sure that you’re not polluting the water with objects that won’t break down. There are many biodegradable cremation urns available that will break down over time when exposed to water. If you have an urn that’s made of metal or ceramic, you’ll need to scatter the ashes directly into the water and take the urn back to shore with you.
Spreading flowers or floating lanterns on the water can be beautiful, but make sure that there are no parts made of metal, plastic, or other similar materials. Any wreath should not contain wire fasteners, for example, which could harm fish or be left to clutter up the area. Don’t put anything in the water that could be swallowed or otherwise injure marine wildlife. Anything that you put into the water should either disintegrate relatively quickly or it needs to be removed before you leave.
Check the Weather Conditions
One of the most common horror stories told of scattering ashes at sea is the family opening the urn to spread the ashes, only to have them blown back by the wind onto the guests. It can get very windy on the ocean or even on a lake, and it’s often difficult to predict exactly which direction the wind will come from.
It’s a good idea to bring some type of device that indicates the wind direction, even if it’s a piece of ribbon attached to a long stick. Take your time to see if you can determine a general wind direction and wait for the wind to calm, if possible. Everyone should stand upwind as much as they can, so that the cremains will blow away from people and the boat. It’s also a good idea to release the ashes close to the water, if possible, so they are less likely to get caught by the wind. Be aware, however, that it’s very difficult to prevent any blowback.
One suggestion to avoid any wind-related issues is to use an urn designed to be placed into the water and release the ashes on the seafloor. A sand quartz urn, for example, will slowly sink and dissolve on the ocean floor. There are a number of options for biodegradable urns that are specifically made for water burials.
Keep an eye out for rain or storms as well. The cremains may clump together more on a very humid day, making them more difficult to scatter. You may also face other difficulties, such as rough waves and high winds, which could make the experience more difficult.
Check the Condition of the Cremains
At least a day or two before you scatter ashes at sea, open the cremation urn and check the condition of the cremains. Not only will this show you if it’s difficult to open the urn and if it could be challenge during the ceremony, it will let you know if the cremains are inside a plastic bag in the urn that you will also need to open. Make sure that you can open the urn easily, but that it has a tight seal so there is no chance of accidental spillage. If the cremains are in a bag, make sure that you can open it easily or that you have a pair of scissors to cut it on the day.
Cremains can settle over time, and you’ll want to make sure that they have not clumped together. If you find that they are not as loose as you’d like, take a spoon or other similar implement and stir them gently. This will allow them to flow easily from the urn.
Be Prepared for the Location
When traveling by boat or plane, it’s important that you dress appropriately and be prepared for an unsteady trip. Boat decks can get slippery, so attendees should wear appropriate non-skid footwear. Take the appropriate medication beforehand if you get seasick or airsick, and make sure that everyone who attends knows where to go if they start feeling ill. It can be very windy on a boat, so long hair should be tied back when spreading ashes at sea.
Think carefully before taking children to the ceremony. Will they be bored and cause a disruption? Children should never be left unsupervised on any boat, so you’ll need to make sure that they are occupied and monitored at all times.
Ask for Help
If you’re chartering a boat or plane for the scattering of ashes at sea, talk to the owner, pilot, or captain about your plans. In many cases, they’ve worked with other families in the past for scattering ceremonies, and they may have good advice to offer. Ask if they have suggestions, especially for details that you might not have considered. In addition, you may want to ask what their procedures are to handle problems; if the cremains spill, for example, or if they blow back onto the boat, how do they clean them off? If their answers are not acceptable to you, you may want to offer alternate methods or seek out a different charter company.