State and Federal Laws for Scattering Ashes Explained

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In late 2018, an article was published in the Wall Street Journal about Disney World’s biggest secret. Unbeknownst to many visitors, the “Most Magical Place on Earth” is also one of the most common places for bereaved to spread their loved one’s ashes. Janitorial even has a code, HEPA, to identify this specific kind of cleanup. According to the article, the most popular place in the park to leave a loved one’s cremains is the Haunted Mansion. 

Jump ahead to these sections: 

But is it legal to spread ashes in Disney World? This thought doesn’t cross the minds of ash-spreading guests. Little do they know, they are actually committing a misdemeanor. At Cake, we would never wish a misdemeanor on anyone attempting to carry out their loved one's last wishes.

So to avoid the faux pas of spreading ashes improperly, here’s some info about the laws on spreading ashes in the ocean, forests, public spaces, and beyond.

What to Understand Before You Get Started

First, let’s understand the cremation process itself. In cremation, human remains are broken down using intense heat and fire. After, the remains have become bone fragments and ashes that look a lot like coarse sand. According to the Cremation Society of Washington, the remains of an adult typically weigh about 6 pounds.

You are required to use an urn or similar container to transfer cremated remains. While you can use the urn to store cremains indefinitely, scattering a loved one’s ashes is a common practice. Often, family members or loved ones will choose to scatter the ashes in a place that was beloved by the deceased. You may also have a loved one who has left a final request regarding their ashes. Before you fulfill either of these requests by spreading ashes, find out if the practice is legal in your area.

If you are interested in spreading ashes on federal land, you might be frustrated to learn there is no cut and dry answer to whether it’s allowed. If the land is state-controlled, such as a state park, then the state has the final call on what you can do legally. In addition, if you’d like to spread cremains within city limits, you will want to check the rules with your local municipality. 

At the same time, there is a reason why the rules are so relaxed. Cremation remains are not a public health hazard. Therefore, there is no health reason to set laws regarding the scattering of ashes. 

Difference between controlled and uncontrolled public land and cremation

There are some distinctions between controlled and uncontrolled public lands. A controlled public land would be a city park or landmark. If you are scattering ashes in these locations, you would need to contact the local municipality regarding whether a permit is required. For uncontrolled public lands, such as public trails or woodlands, you don’t have to request permission. 

However, there are cultural aspects to consider since not all religious beliefs, such as Orthodox Judaism, support cremation. To avoid upsetting anyone, consider concealing the ashes in an urn and choose an area that is off the public’s beaten path. This way the cremated remains will be less likely to be disturbed or removed without your permission. 

Laws for Spreading Ashes at Sea

The leading resource on whether you can spread ashes at sea is the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). According to federal regulation 40 CFR 229.1, titled General Permits for Ocean Dumping, the EPA has issued a general permit that allows for the spreading of ashes at sea. This permit is a part of the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act (MPRSA). It states that ocean dumping in small quantities, including for burial at sea, is permitted. Also, since this is a general permit, you do not have to file a special permit request. 

There are a few details and boxes to check, though. Check out these exceptions to the ruling of the MPRSA general permit:

  • You must place the remains beyond 3 nautical miles from the shoreline. Anything closer than 3 nautical miles is not allowed.
  • You cannot release pet remains in the ocean.
  • An urn, plastic flowers, metal fixtures, or other objects that will not readily decompose in the ocean are not allowed when you release the cremated remains.

In some instances, you might need to use a container to release remains in the sea. For example, if there are excessive wind conditions that will disturb your ability to safely scatter the ashes, there are containers you can use. The EPA states that these containers are approved by the Navy or Coast Guard for when cremains need to be buried at sea. Along with sinking efficiently, this container must also disintegrate rather quickly without leaving behind any non-biodegradable material.

State by State Laws About Spreading Ashes

Every state sets its own rules regarding the local laws about spreading ashes. However, these laws do not apply to the saltwater of the sea. The EPA and the MPRSA general permit covers spreading ashes in its entirety. States cannot change the regulations regarding the ocean, but they can when it comes to other places.

For example, if you are interested in scattering the ashes of a loved one in a river or a lake, you will need to check with state regulations. This type of waterway is not included in the MPRSA general permit.

In addition, you will note that states often have their own rules for scattering ashes in general. For instance, in the state of Washington, the law says that since cremated remains are harmless, they maintain no risk to the public’s health. Therefore, you can scatter ashes in many places without fear of retribution. This includes scattering ashes in:

  • A scattering garden that has been set aside solely or intentionally for this purpose and may be available at cemeteries near you
  • On private property including someone else’s land with the understanding that you should ask for permission especially if you don’t know the landowner

In Georgia, the Georgia State Board of Funeral Service handles all state laws regarding cremated remains. In this state, you—as the person legally responsible for the cremains—have 30 days to pick up remains from the funeral establishment or crematory housing the remains. If you don’t they will dispose of them in a crypt or burial. The cost will be charged to you, but the law states you cannot be charged more than $100. 

Another state with a detailed codified law about cremation is South Dakota. According to the South Dakota Legislature, you can scatter cremated remains:

  • Over a public waterway including freshwater rivers and lakes
  • On private property as long as you ask permission from the land or property owner
  • You can scatter ashes by airplane or boat

After you finish scattering ashes in South Dakota, you have to file the action with the nearest courthouse as a final resting place for the deceased. If you fail to follow the rules here, you are subject to a Class 2 misdemeanor. That is why it is always a good idea to do your research before you decide on where to spread the ashes of a loved one. This way you know for sure is it legal to spread ashes in your state or city.

Get Help Planning Your End-of-Life Decisions Today

At Cake, we offer free assistance with end-of-life planning. We provide this assistance via an easily accessible platform and website. Here you can plan end of life health care decisions for yourself or a loved one. Our priority is in making it simple for you to share your end-of-life decisions with the people who matter—your loved ones.

This way when the time comes to make these decisions, it will hopefully make the process that much easier for them. Create a free plan today at Cake.


Sources

  1. Schwartzel, Erich. “Disney World’s Big Secret: It’s a Favorite Spot to Scatter Family Ashes.” The Wall Street Journal, October 24, 2018, www.wsj.com/articles/disney-worlds-big-secret-its-a-favorite-spot-to-scatter-family-ashes-1540390229
  2. Burial at Sea.” Environmental Protection Agency, March 12, 2018, www.epa.gov/ocean-dumping/burial-sea
  3. “Cremation Questions.” Cremation Society of Washington, cremationsocietywa.com/cremation-questions/
  4. “Frequently Asked Questions.” Georgia State Board of Funeral Service, sos.ga.gov/index.php/licensing/plb/25/faq
  5. “Codified Laws.” South Dakota Legislative Research Council, sdlegislature.gov/Statutes/Codified_Laws/DisplayStatute.aspx?Type=Statute&Statute=34-26A-27