Mourners consider new ways to scatter a loved one’s remains
Fenway Park gets so many requests to sprinkle cremated remains on the field that the park’s operators have had to start saying no. At Disneyland and Disney World, custodians are so regularly called to vacuum up ashes that they reportedly came up with a term for it: “Code Grandma.”
At funeral ceremonies, a new trend has emerged — mourners are being asked whether they’d like to take a package with the deceased’s ashes and sprinkle them someplace meaningful.
“It was my first experience with this,” said Michael Mackan of Dorchester, who recently attended a funeral where the mother of the young man who died asked friends to help continue her son’s journey in the world. “I thought it was a beautiful idea.”
In 1960, hardly anyone was cremated — the rate was a mere 3.6 percent, according to the Cremation Association of North America. But by 2016, cremation had become so popular it surpassed burial, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.
Along the way, a once-fringe ritual — scattering a loved one’s ashes — has become such a widespread practice that the bereaved can now take ash-scattering cruises or purchase rocket-like devices to launch remains into the hereafter. And odds are creative options will increase: Funeral directors are projecting that by 2035, the cremation rate will hit 79.1 percent.
The trend is fueled by cost considerations — cremation is about one-third the price of burial; environmental concerns; an increasingly transient population; fewer religious prohibitions of the practice; and the desire for simpler, less-ritualized funeral practices, according to the funeral directors trade group.
With Americans increasingly spelling out where they’d like their remains scattered, fulfilling that last wish is a growing way for the bereaved to seek comfort, said Walker Posey, a spokesman for the Funeral Directors Association. “It’s very common to hear, ‘Dad said please scatter a portion of my ashes here.’ ”
Well, that’s easy for Dad to say.
Although cremated remains are not toxic and do not pose a health hazard if you touch them, according to the association, permission to distribute them often must be sought and restrictions are not uncommon.
Late members of Patriots Nation can no longer rest on Gillette Stadium’s game field, for example, after a policy change was made midway through the 2006 season when the team switched to synthetic turf, spokesman Stacey James said.
“But,” he added, “we try to consider all requests for special accommodations from our fans, including the spreading of ashes in other areas around the stadium.”
Many people imagine their future deceased selves released into a beloved body of water, but New England states prohibit scattering of ashes in inland waters — the Charles River, Walden Pond, and the Cape Cod Canal included — according to Dave Deegan, a spokesman for the Environmental Protection Agency’s New England region office.
If you want to scatter ashes in the ocean, you’re going to need a boat, as the release must be done 3 nautical miles from shore.
Many families don’t let a rule or two stop them, and surreptitious scattering is not uncommon. Who’s going to notice if you drop a few ashes on a stadium tour or sprinkle them into the crashing surf?
But regulations aren’t the only challenge, a reality captured by the online site Modern Loss, in a popular piece called “The 9 Things No One Tells You About Scattering Ashes.”
The story combines practical advice — stand upwind, don’t pack ashes in checked luggage — with emotional guidance.
“There will be bones,” author Tré Miller Rodríguez writes. “When I unscrewed the urn containing [my husband] Alberto’s ashes, I expected a small box of soft campfire ash. I encountered a plastic bag with 6 pounds of coarse sand and sharp bone fragments. Not sure if anything prepares you to see someone you love reduced to a bag of cement mix, but the knowledge that cremated remains look nothing like ashes is a starting point.”
As with traditional funerals, grief can spark tension among family members, with some survivors intent on elaborate multilocation scattering and others eager for a simple ceremony in a garden or the woods.
“It’s the new destination wedding,” said a Boston-area woman whose family argued a bit over where to scatter her father’s ashes, and who spoke only on the condition of anonymity so as not to worsen relations.
Meanwhile, even as traditional funeral homes are looking for revenue to make up income lost to cremation, the ash-scattering industry is providing jobs for artists, sailors, pilots, and balloon professionals.
A black-and-white portrait of the deceased can be painted with ashes. The remains can be scattered by drone or helicopter, or put into a Living Urn from which a tree will grow, or mixed into an environmentally safe cement reef.
On Cape Cod, family members can set sail on a 63-foot catamaran with a full liquor license and a snack bar and watch as ashes are scattered 3 nautical miles off shore. In Florida, the Eternal Ascent Society will release remains to the heavens in a 5-foot biodegradable helium balloon.
Cremation Solutions in Arlington, Vt., recently introduced a $375 Loved One Launcher. It’s a handheld CO2-powered ash-scattering cannon that will launch ashes up to 70 feet, and it comes with a disclaimer noting that improper use of the launcher “may cause harm, injury and or death.” (Better buy two.)
Showy displays aren’t for everyone, though. Many family members prefer to carry a few ashes and sprinkle discreetly. Margaret Talev, a senior White House correspondent for Bloomberg News who is in town on a fellowship at Harvard’s Kennedy School, has been taking her parents’ ashes on global reporting trips since her father died, in 2008, and her mother, in 2015.
“I started taking him with me because I wanted him to get to see places I knew he’d wanted to go,” said Talev, who is writing a memoir about her adventures with the ashes.
“But it’s obviously for me, right?” she added. “After a while, I sort of realized I liked having him there.”