“Keep your back to the wind,” says Gail Rubin, a death educator in Albuquerque. You want the ashes to disperse out onto the land or water rather than blow back in your face. If you’re unsure of the wind direction, throw a pinch of dirt or sand into the air first and watch which way it goes. The average cremated adult will produce about five pounds of pulverized bone fragments, a coarse powder that is sterile and safe to touch, even if the person died of a communicable disease. Try to scatter, not dump. “It helps to have a trowel or a spoon or ladle or something to scoop with,” Rubin says.
Last year in the United States, over half of those who died were cremated. In some states, like Nevada, that number is closer to 80 percent. Often the deceased will not leave behind specific directions for where to put their ashes. If you decide to take them out into the world, choose a place the person loved. Research local, state, tribal and federal regulations. For example, the National Park Service issues permits for ash-scattering in parks like Yosemite so long as it is: done out of public view; at least 100 yards from any waterway; and no marker is left behind. On land, Rubin suggests finding a discrete and distinctive landmark, like a large boulder, that you’ll remember and can revisit. Note the location with GPS coordinates. At sea, human remains, including ashes, must be thrown at least three nautical miles from land.
Rubin once surreptitiously dropped a biodegradable bag of her brother-in-law’s ashes off the side of a cruise ship crossing the Bermuda Triangle. “There are no cremation police,” she says. Still, be decent. Rubin thinks the people who drop cremains off the rides at Disneyland, causing regular ride closures, have gone too far.
Start and end with some kind of ritual. Say a prayer, a poem, a remembrance. Scatter with intention. “Because people are afraid of death, they’re afraid of the ceremonies around death,” Rubin says. It’s OK if your hands get dirty. Don’t worry if the ashes fall on your shoes. Don’t fret if the wind shifts and dusts your skin in the powdery calcium phosphate of bones. “It won’t kill you,” Rubin says, “but it’ll probably make you cough.”