State and Federal Laws for Scattering Ashes Explained

Legal editor, attorney

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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. 

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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 cremated remains of an adult typically weigh about 5-9 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 likely don’t have to request permission, but you should check with local regulations first. 

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. 

» MORE: How do you host a virtual funeral? Start here

 

Laws for Spreading Ashes at Sea

The leading resource on whether you can spread ashes at sea is the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In federal regulation 40 CFR 229.1, 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). The MPRSA gives the EPA authority to issue permits for ocean dumping, within certain limitations. Under this authority, the EPA established federal regulations relating to burial at sea. 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 requirements for scattering cremains at sea:

  • You must place the remains no closer than three nautical miles from the shoreline. Anything closer than three 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.

You also need to file a report with the EPA within 30 days of burying the remains at sea. The EPA created an easy online reporting tool for this purpose.

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 Navy provides guidance on acceptable containers 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 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 the ocean regardless of the state the boat departs from. 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:

  • National Parks, after receiving permission from the Chief Park Ranger
  • State trust uplands after receiving permission from the regional manager
  • Public navigable waters under state control, include Puget Sound, Strait of Juan de Fuca, rivers, streams, and lakes
  • 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 permission from 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 60 days to pick up remains from the funeral establishment or crematory housing the remains.

If you don’t respond within 30 days of receiving notice from the funeral home, they may 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 law about scattering cremains 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 property owner

You can use an airplane or boat to scatter the ashes in these permitted places.

If you plan to scatter ashes in South Dakota, you have to file a statement with the nearest county registrar identifying the final resting place for the deceased. If the funeral home knows you plan to scatter the cremains, they are not permitted to release the ashes to you until you provide proof that you filed this documentation with the county.

If you fail to follow the rules here, you're 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.

Disclaimer: The information posted on this site is provided solely for informational and educational purposes and is not legal advice or tax advice. Contact an appropriate professional licensed in your jurisdiction for advice specific to your legal or tax situation.


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
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