There are many options for holding a memorial service after a cremation.
As the popularity of cremation has increased over the last few decades, more and more people have felt the need to include a meaningful ritual alongside it. A traditional funeral with the body present isn’t all that common with cremation (although it’s absolutely a possibility). That doesn’t mean you can’t have a memorial service that serves the same purpose, even after the cremation.
One way to remember your loved one after cremation is to hold an ash-scattering ceremony. There are many ways you can go about doing this, and there’s bound to be one that’s a perfect fit for the person you’re honoring. It can be a small, private gathering or a standing-room-only celebration of life. And it can take place anywhere from a back yard to a national forest, international waters, or aboard an airplane.
If you’d like to plan an ash-scattering ceremony for a loved one, here’s a checklist to help you make it just right.
Think of what type of ceremony you’ll have
One of the most beautiful things about having an ash-scattering ceremony instead of a traditional funeral is the very fact that it’s not traditional. There aren’t many rules governing what you do, and you can make the ceremony exactly what you want it to be. Will you charter a boat for friends and family and scatter the ashes on the waves along with armfuls of flowers? Will you plan a family hike on a favorite woodsy trail and scatter the ashes as you walk? Will you gather in your garden and plant a tree together with the ashes to nourish it? The sky is literally the limit as you consider what you’d like to do — because another option is to release the ashes from a plane high above the Earth.
You should also determine at this point who you’ll be inviting. Your plan may limit the number of people invited; for example, if you’re chartering a boat or plane, there will be a maximum number of passengers allowed. The location may also affect whether the ceremony is suitable for children or not — a beach gathering may be perfect for kids, while a hearty hike might not.
Choose a location
First, prepare for the possibility that your dream location won’t be feasible or even legal. There are many wonderful options available for scattering ashes, but those options don’t always include other people’s private property, like athletic stadiums and theme parks. Check our guide to where you can scatter ashes legally in order to determine what location is going to work for you.
Obtain any necessary permits
If you’re planning to scatter the ashes anywhere other than your own land, determine if you need a permit or other written permission and obtain it if necessary. Plan to have this permit or written permission with you at the time of the ceremony.
Plan the ceremony
What do you want to have happen at the ceremony, other than scattering your loved one’s ashes? Will you have elements of a traditional funeral, like a eulogy and songs and readings? Or will you skip those elements in favor of creating a new ritual? Whichever you choose, make sure you have at least a general order of events in mind and designate a person to lead the ceremony, so things will run smoothly. If there will be a number of people attending, others may want to say a few words, read a poem, or share favorite memories. You should determine if you want to allow time for anyone to speak who wants to, or if you’d rather keep it more formal by choosing a few speakers ahead of time.
Make a plan for the ashes
One important step to take prior to the ash-scattering ceremony is determining if anyone wants to keep a portion of the ashes as a keepsake. Ask close family members about this while it’s still an option. Next, determine who will scatter the ashes, so there’s no confusion or disagreement at the time of the ceremony. Then you’ll want to make sure you know exactly what you’ll be doing with the ashes — and that you understand how scattering ashes works.
Not everyone knows that cremation ashes are not the same consistency as fireplace ashes, and you should familiarize yourself with what the ashes look like before scattering so you won’t be taken by surprise. If you’re scattering from a plane or releasing the ashes into the breeze down on Earth, you should prepare for possible wind and be ready to take steps to make sure the ashes won’t blow back onto any attendees. And if you’re placing the ashes on the ground, be aware that they won’t just immediately disappear into the grass – there will likely be visible pieces, and this could potentially be jarring for some attendees. You may decide it’s best to slightly bury the ashes or rake them gently into the soil.
Finally, it’s a good idea to practice opening the urn before you’re in the middle of the ceremony and it’s time to scatter the ashes. Make sure you know how the urn opens and you can open it smoothly, and look inside to see if the ashes are loose or in a plastic bag. If they’re in a plastic bag, you may want to empty them into the urn prior to the scattering, so the plastic isn’t an element at the ceremony. If you do this, make sure the urn seals tightly so they won’t leak out. If you prefer to keep the ashes in the plastic bag until the ceremony, have a plan in place for how you’ll remove it and open it. Finally, check to see if the ashes have compacted in the urn. This can make it difficult to pour the ashes out. If so, you can loosen them by stirring with a utensil, and it’s best to do this before the time of the ceremony.
Keep your guests in mind
When you’re having an outdoor ceremony like this, there are considerations that wouldn’t apply at a traditional funeral. Make sure everyone attending the ceremony knows what to expect — for example, if the ceremony is taking place in a public park or forest preserve, exactly where should people meet? If you’ll be setting sail, how long do you plan to be on the water? Guests will want to know if there will be walking, so they can choose the right clothes and shoes. Some older or disabled guests may not be able to do much, if any, walking, so keep them in mind as you plan and consider what kind of assistance or alternate plans you can offer to anyone who might need it. Have sunblock and bug spray on hand if the weather calls for them.
Remember you don’t have to go it alone
Even if the ash-scattering ceremony you’re planning is absolutely nothing like a traditional funeral, that doesn’t mean you can’t enlist the help of a funeral director. Planning and carrying out an event like this is a lot of work, and it’s work a funeral director is highly qualified to do. You might prefer to do all the planning yourself, but if you’d rather be free to fully appreciate the ceremony without being bogged down in details, considering getting help from a professional.