Woman scattering cremated ashes in lake

The funeral is over. The mourners have gone home.  And now you have the cremated remains of a loved one.  When I was in this situation, I remember having a similar feeling to when I brought my daughter home from the hospital.  “Am I allowed to have this precious cargo?  What am I supposed to do?  Am I breaking any laws?” I had a thousand questions…

First to state the obvious – having the remains of a loved one can be an intensely emotional experience! And that’s okay.  Do what feels right (and legal!) to help you and your loved ones through the grieving process.

People often scatter or bury the ashes of their loved ones outside of a cemetery or mausoleum.  It can symbolize the body’s return to nature or God, honoring a life’s passion, letting go, or any/all of these.  I interred my mother’s remains at a lake where she would go camping and water skiing as a child.  She told me countless stories of her time there growing up, and felt like the right final resting place for her.  

If scattering or burying outside of a cemetery or mausoleum is the right choice for you, there are a few points to keep in mind.  We will be publishing a series of articles to help you through this process.  


Our first topic is on where to deposit the remains.  Determining a final resting spot for cremains is a deeply personal process.  Making a good choice can be incredibly helpful to mourners as the last act of honoring a loved one who has passed.  However, before plans go too far, it is best to make sure that you’re not putting yourself or others planning to attend the scattering in jeopardy!

The most important guideline is to respect the will of the property owner!  Whether you’re considering parks, public land or private property, the advice is the same – check first!  There are a few tips below for common scattering locations.

Parks & Public Property

Most US national parks allow the scattering of cremains, but request that you secure a permit before proceeding.  A quick search of the National Park Servicewebsite will yield individual park rules.  The Bureau of Land Management website has a good guideas well.  The generally accepted rule is to go off trail/road for at least 100 yards before scattering or burying the remains.

National parks, state parks and trails and other public lands are often deeply meaningful to people and can be a beautiful final resting place.  Obtaining a permit may seem like needless bureaucracy, but doing so can keep you on the right side of the authorities, respects the experience of other users of the land, and prevents inadvertent environmental impacts. 

Cremains are non-toxic…mostly

Cremains aren’t toxic to humans or a biohazard.  All of the organic materials are eliminated through the cremation process, leaving mostly just calcium phosphates from bones.  This is similar to fertilizer, and anyone who has been overzealous in fertilizing their lawn knows that the excess nutrients can cause ‘burns’ in the grass.  Some of the park rules are put in place to ensure we don’t inadvertently damage sensitive wildlife areas such as tundras or waterways.  

Private Property

If you want to scatter ashes on private property (assuming you’re not the owner), you’ll naturally need to get permission before proceeding.  Remember, many seemingly public spaces are actually private property – think sports stadiums.  Some venues are more welcoming than others.  NASCAR’s Bristol Motor Speedway for example typically accommodates requests.  Others flatly reject all such asks.  Contacting the owner or those responsible for managing the site before you proceed will help ensure a dignified ceremony without charges being filed!

Keep in mind that stadiums or other buildings are subject to be demolished and or moved.  The old home of the Denver Broncos, Mile High Stadium, is now a parking lot!  Who knows what became of ashes that may have been spread there years ago?

At Sea

The EPA allows the burial of human remains at sea, though they should be scattered at least 3 miles from shore in a biodegradable container.  The EPA asks that you report back to them about the scattering within 30 days with a short, 2-page form.

Final Thoughts 

With the increasing popularity of cremation, there will be more non-traditional final resting place. Whether you secure permits/permissions or take a “don’t ask, don’t tell” strategy, there are a few final considerations as you plan your scattering ceremony.  

  • Be Considerate of Others  – As noted earlier, people may have emotional reactions to human remains.  If you’re scattering remains somewhere special, please don’t ruin it for others who share the same affection for a place.
  • Be discrete– Cremains have a lighter color than most rock and dirt, so try to spread them around or bury them to help them blend in.  If you’re in a park, try to get at least 100 yards from the trail to minimize the visual impact.  
  • Be Mindful of Environmental Impacts– Cremains can have similar effect on plants as fertilizer.  A concentration on tundra for example can create a dead zone that may last for years.  Grasses may be burned if the ash isn’t spread out enough.  Return your loved one to the earth responsibly!

Thanks for reading this and feel free to email us if you have additional questions on deciding where to distribute cremains.  Our next topic in the series?   “What To Expect When You’re Spreading” will give insights into what it’s like handling cremains.  Thanks and #celebratelifespassions!

– Lawrence

© 2019 Gowin Memorials