So you’ve decided that when you die, you’d prefer to be cremated. Or perhaps you’ve recently suffered the loss of a loved one—and they’ve willed your their ashes. This can all get pretty heavy, pretty quickly.
We’ve been thinking about the subject quite a bit lately, thanks to the addictive HBO miniseries The White Lotus. (Minor spoilers ahead; don’t worry, we don’t let you know who dies.)
The show introduces us to Tanya, a…complicated woman who has taken a solo Hawaian vacation with the goal of scattering her mother’s ashes at sea. It doesn’t go so smoothly.
Tanya’s first attempt to spread the ashes is on a sunset boat cruise—an occasion she ends up sharing with two honeymooning strangers who were expecting a romantic dinner at sea. Aaawkward.
Later, in a drunken haze, Tanya tries to give a man she’s been sleeping with her mother’s urn, asking him to simply dump the remains in a garbage bin somewhere. Get a grip, Tanya!
In the end, Tanya seems to come to terms with her grief, and her mortality, and has made the conscious decision to move on. We see her blissfully cavorting on the beach, tossing the ashes into the surf. (We’re not crying over here, promise.)
Now, Tanya’s story is an example of what not to do if you’re looking to have a meaningful ash-spreading ceremony. And that urn she’s lugging around? So 1980s.
Are you looking to have a more successful memorial experience? We figured it couldn’t hurt to take a quick look at what cremation entails, and how you can make the attendant ceremonies and rituals just as meaningful as a conventional burial and funeral.
This section might be a little graphic for some folks, so if you aren’t interested in learning about the finer details of cremation, maybe just skip ahead.
Deep breath: Cremation is the process of reducing a body to its most essential elements by exposing it to extreme heat and open flame.
Before they are cremated, the deceased is usually placed in a biodegradable casket, which then goes into the crematorium’s cremation chamber. Once the furnace is lit, it can take around one and a half to three hours until the process is complete.
What remains are mostly bone fragments, which are then ground into a powder, known as the cremains (yes, we agree, it’s a terrible term). ‘Ashes, you see, is a bit of a misnomer. But once the deceased loved ones receive the cremains—around 3 to 9 pounds of them—they really do look a lot like ashes. We get it, thinking about bone fragments can be… unnerving. But it’s also the definition of natural.
As the world urns
Once you receive the cremains, you can choose to display them in an urn as an artistic keepsake for generations to come, or simply use the urn as a vessel to keep the remains safe until you scatter them elsewhere.
The L.A.-based Boyce Studio creates shockingly chic urns from sculpted wood; they include space for a succulent, and are branded as “Planturns.” Around $500 gets you a large-scale Planturn in walnut and sycamore; a small option in walnut and cork retails for $250. Boyce’s clientele seems split between those who purchase Planturns for human family members and those who are commemorating beloved pets.
A recent New Yorker piece suggested that the market for stylish funerary flair is only growing. “I have all mid-century stuff, and this will be the centerpiece of my indoor plant wall,” designer Jason Searcy told the magazine, discussing a Planturn containing the cremated remains of his father. “I have it out in the open when I’m having beers with friends.”
Mid-century modern not your taste? Maybe these vaguely psychedelic glass urns from Modern Memorials are more appealing. Or if you’re opting for a water burial, there are biodegradable urns or “eco water urns” that are designed to dissolve within minutes, without negatively impacting the marine environment.
How not to get arrested while scattering ashes
Scattering ashes in nature or in a place that was somehow significant to the deceased can be a beautiful way to pay your final respects.
While cremains are technically natural, there are a number of regulations about where and how you can spread ashes, for a number of sanitary and environmental reasons.
You can scatter ashes at sea or in another body of water, a common practice. But there are rules, including the fact that you need to be three nautical miles away from the shoreline. So Tanya’s gleeful, impromptu ash ceremony in the surf during the finale of The White Lotus? Not exactly legal.
Want to scatter ashes in a national park? That’s probably no problem. Just chat with a park official first to check if you need to arrange for a permit.
If you want to spread ashes on your own private property, you’re more than welcome, but if someone else owns the property, you’ll need to get written or verbal consent first (getting things in writing is never a bad idea). This includes amusement parks, sport stadiums, golf courses, and museums. Don’t try to make this an undercover mission; if you get caught spreading ashes where you’re not supposed to, you could get hit with serious fines and jail time.
Uninhabited public spaces, like a nature reserve or forest, are a lovely place to spread your loved one’s ashes—just make sure to do it away from walking or biking trails. As much as this is a meaningful experience for you and your family, passersby did not sign up to take part in your final goodbye (we’re looking at you, Tanya).
Planning an ash-scattering ceremony
There’s no single way to host a meaningful ash-scattering. (You’ll probably want to avoid replicating this classic snafu from The Big Lebowski, however—and no judgment, but we’d suggest that a Folger’s coffee tin is not a suitable urn.)
If you want to make a proper memorial service, with family and friends, that’s great. Or if you’d rather make the act of casting ashes a more private affair, there’s nothing wrong with going solo: Alone in nature, with the memory of your loved one.
Legacy.com has a helpful checklist of what to keep in mind when planning this event.
While it may be tempting to just “go with the flow,” they recommend having a basic structure for your ash-scattering memorial: “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,” they suggest. “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.”
How much does cremation cost?
According to a recent study, around 44% of Americans say they would prefer to be cremated rather than undergoing a traditional burial.
Why is cremation trending in the funeral business? Well, there are a few factors, from cremation’s smaller carbon footprint to a younger generation’s desire to buck convention. Cremation also tends to cost less than a traditional burial, which average at around $7,600. Cremation (including embalming and public viewing) comes in at around $4,000-$7,000. A traditional burial costs more because of additional expenses, including burial plots, caskets, grave liners, and headstones.
A direct cremation, which doesn’t involve a public viewing at a funeral home or embalming, can cost as little as $1,500. This might sound impersonal, but there are ways to make a direct cremation meaningful—including by staging your own personal ceremony to scattering your loved one’s ashes at a significant location.
You can learn more about direct cremation from author, public speaker, and licensed mortician Caitlin Doughty, who does a great job of demystifying death. If Tanya of White Lotus fame had watched some of her YouTube videos, she might not have had such a rough time of it…