How Cremation Works

What's Left: Disposing of Human Ashes

For families, there is the question of what to do with the ashes. Some keep the cremated remains at home, some choose cemetery buildings called columbariums and others bury the ashes.

Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson went out with a bang when his ashes were mixed with fireworks and shot from a 153-foot (46.6-meter) memorial tower. "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry chose to have his remains shot into space. One company incorporates the carbon from a bit of ash into a synthetic diamond, while other companies mix a teaspoon or two of ash into paint, plaster or other materials that can be turned into works of art. Families can even make their loved one's ashes into a coral reef.


A 2006 survey by the Cremation Association of North America found that out of the cremated remains returned to families, about 38 percent were kept at home, 37 percent buried, 21 percent scattered over water or land and about 3 percent placed in a columbarium. About 1 percent of the cremated remains were never picked up [source: CANA 2006]. Those unclaimed remains present a tricky dilemma for funeral homes and crematories, which are legally allowed to dump the remains after a fixed period of time but often hold on to them for years or even decades, just in case a family member shows up.

Local laws on scattering vary from region to region, and there may be forms or notices to fill out before scattering remains on public land, although many agencies tend to turn a blind eye:

  • The National Park Service leaves the matter up to individual parks, and the National Forest Service doesn't regulate scattering on its lands. Many national parks have prohibited the scattering of ashes except on cemetery lands, and different parks have different requirements for those exceptions. State parks are often more lax but also have their own, individual regulations.
  • For ocean scatterings, the EPA requires it to be done at least 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) away from the shore. In California, people can scatter closer to the shore but still have to be at least 500 feet (152.4 meters) away from the nearest point of land.

One well known, unsanctioned scattering involved the ashes of a die-hard Chicago Cubs fan, Steve Goodman, who passed away of leukemia in 1984. He found his final resting place four years later at Wrigley Field, thanks to a determined friend who snuck in just before opening day and threw Goodman's ashes into the wind toward Waveland Avenue [source: Zorn].