Scattering Ashes

How to Conduct an Aerial Burial With Dignity and Legality

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We always thought my dad wanted his ashes spread over Cherry Hill, the family farm and B&B in the Catskill Mountains where he grew up. But my mother vetoed our plans to airdrop his ashes from my Cardinal and said he had expressed a desire to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. And so he was. The ceremony, with full military honors, was very impressive.

But cremation - and the question of what to do with the resulting ashes - has become more popular - and problematic. Typically, a group of family and friends will take the urn with the ashes to one of the decedent's favorite places and scatter the ashes. For sailors, the favorite place might be on the water and for pilots, in the air above a favorite fly-over spot.

As a result of the popularity of cremation, sea and aerial scatterings have become popular ways to honor the passing of a loved one. A number of commercial companies have been formed to provide scattering services from boats or airplanes for a fee. There's even at least one company that will pack the ashes and send them aloft in a fireworks display.

The commercial companies charge about $350 for the "service" that normally includes a certificate of the "burial" and the GPS coordinates of the location where the ashes were released. Depending on the type of airplane and their insurance requirements (and whether they're operating under Part 91 or Part 135), some of the companies allow passengers on the funeral flight. (If you decide to go the way of a commercial operator, caveat emptor pertains. The Cremation Association of North America, which has developed a Model Cremation Law, reported there was litigation in California that involved a claim against an air delivery service that improperly placed cremated remains on a vacant lot rather than dispersing them in the public areas as requested. In 1997, the association reported, another California air delivery service was discovered with over 5,000 cremated remains that had not been scattered in accordance with contractual obligations.)

But pilots are an independent lot and many want to do it themselves. Surprisingly, there's nothing in the Federal Aviation Regulations to prohibit a pilot from dropping ashes from an airplane. The only regulation that applies is FAR 91.15, "Dropping Objects. No pilot in command of a civil aircraft may allow any object to be dropped from that aircraft in flight that creates a hazard to persons or property. However, this section does not prohibit the dropping of any object if reasonable precautions are taken to avoid injury or damage to persons or property."

But do-it-themselves pilots have found it's not as easy as it would seem to disperse ashes from an airplane with dignity. First of all, the "ashes" aren't all ashes. The remains include bone fragments, that if not mechanically reduced, can be too large to drift away. According to Ned Roche, a funeral director in Lenox, Massachusetts, it's wise to let the crematorium know that you intend to scatter the ashes. The crematorium will use magnets to remove any metal and finely process the cremains.

But ejecting fine ash into the slipstream of an airplane poses major difficulties. A couple of accounts I found on the internet (and edited) are indicative of the problems pilots have experienced trying to disperse cremains with the appropriate dignity.

"I was the pilot of my Cessna 195 and my friend had the chore of getting the door open and jettisoning the ashes. We climbed to a suitable height over the Pacific. I slowed the airplane and my friend cracked the door open from the rear seat. There was quite a bit of force from the air stream, but he managed to hold the door open a crack while he slowly fed the ashes to the sea. We had not anticipated the low pressure air currents inside the cabin, which sucked several pieces of the cremains back into the airplane. For the next few years after that, at the annual inspection, I would find bits of ash and bone in the airplane. There's probably some that's still there."

In a second account, the pilot of an open cockpit, tandem-seat airplane flew the airplane while a friend in the back dispersed the cremains.

"I had been told by others that whatever precautions I took, I would end up with ash in the cockpit. That wasn't going to happen to me! Armed with a big roll of gaffer tape I stuck the bag [with the cremains] on the end of a stout cardboard map tube. I then fashioned a 'handle' with more tape on the bottom of the bag so I could pull it open. After the first pass I asked my friend in the back how it went. "Okay, but they haven't all come out," he said, "there's some left." We went around again. The second pass was followed by a stony silence from the back. "Uh ... the tube broke," he said. "Is there any ash in the airplane?" I asked. "A bit on my lap," he answered. That was an understatement! He was absolutely smothered. My airplane was completely trashed and most of our deceased aviator ended up in a vacuum cleaner."

Another pilot tried a similar solution with a plastic bag taped to the side of his Aztec and a wire through the window to open the bag to release the remains.

"Sure enough," he reported, "all went according to plan (thankfully because the wife and kid were on board). After the flight everyone happily departed the airport (well, sadly, but you know what I mean). But when I walked around to the other side of the airplane I found ashes smeared all over the tail!"

A word to the wise should be sufficient: Scattering ashes from an airplane requires careful preparation. Several techniques have been employed to disperse ashes and as we've seen, not all are successful. The trick seems to be to release the ashes at a distance from the airplane.

A flying club in England wraps the ashes in a small parachute (about four feet in diameter) and drops the chute from the window of a Cessna 172. As the chute deploys, the ashes are scattered. Any residue in the chute is tastefully dealt with when the parachute is recovered.

There's even a patent (U.S. Pat. No. 4,877,203) that was issued for a device for spreading ashes from the air. The device includes a vent mechanism through the cockpit wall of an airplane. The ashes are loaded from the interior of the cockpit and released in the air through the vent. Alternatively, the ashes are contained in a burlap bag that is hung out of the cockpit window for release of the ashes in the sky. According to the patent, the fabric apparatus "is held through an open window and the cremated remains are released from the bottom of the container into the air surrounding the aircraft. This technique affords a number of advantages. First, it allows for the operation of opening the container of the apparatus from a location that is not immediately adjacent to the opening through which the cremated remains disperse. Second, it allows for the release of cremated remains at a point distant from the operator. This is important because the inherent turbulences and air flows in the vicinity of the window of an aircraft or other vehicle frequently involve back currents or other turbulences that may tend to direct cremated remains in a direction other than the one desired. By releasing the cremated remains at the end of an elongated apparatus, the direction of dispersal of the cremated remains is controlled and limited."

Once you've jury-rigged an apparatus for dispersing the cremains, you have to decide where the scattering is going to take place. If the target area is on private property, you need the permission of the property owner.

Scattering ashes over a national park is permitted provided you've obtained a special use permit. Each Park Superintendent may set his own criteria for permitting scattering so you'll want to get the permission from the specific park. There may be a small fee for the permit. For more information you can contact the National Park Service.

If you're planning to deploy the ashes over water, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulation (40CFR229.1) applies. "Based on the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuary Act of 1972, human remains transported from U.S. ports or on U.S. vessels or aircraft may be buried at sea under specified conditions ... . Cremated remains shall be buried in or on ocean waters ... provided that such burial take place at least three nautical miles from land ... . (Burial in inland waters are regulated according to the Clean Water Act. For inland waters burial, a permit is required from the appropriate state agency). Please note the requirement that the (EPA) be notified within 30 days after burial."

If you really want to do it correctly, you might want to contact your state's Board of Embalming and Funeral Directing. Some states may require you to file with the local registrar of births and deaths in the county nearest the point where the cremated remains are to be scattered, a verified statement containing the name of the deceased person, the time and place of death, the place at which the cremated remains are to be scattered, and any other information that the local registrar of births and deaths may require.

If you're planning multiple sites for dispersal including a cemetery, be sure the cemetery will accept partial remains. Arlington National Cemetery, for example, will not accept ashes for burial if the sealed urn has been opened and does not include all the cremains of the decedent.

When picking a place to scatter ashes, consider future access and whether a permanent memorial of some sort on the ground will be permitted. It could be very disturbing if the area you pick gets converted into a shopping mall or parking lot. It's recommended you select a location you expect to stay the same for some time and you can find later if you choose to return to that spot.

If done carefully and with appropriate dignity, scattering ashes from an airplane can be an appropriate way of honoring the wishes of a loved one. But it can be dangerous. The pilot of a Cessna 210 with four people on board planned to scatter his mother's ashes over a mountain cabin. According to the NTSB, one witness observed a "cloud of something" pass behind the airplane moments before it spun to the ground ... . A powder, which was light tan in color and gritty to the touch (similar to cremation ashes), was found throughout the cabin area."

A funeral is a time of stress and sadness. So it might be wise to wait a reasonable time after the death and funeral of a friend or family member before setting out on an emotion-packed excursion. Like the tradition of waiting a year to unveil a tombstone, a flight on the anniversary might be a better way to honor someone. Flights to disperse ashes have ended in crashes; that's no way to celebrate a life.