What can be done with cremated remains? So many things!
What can be done with cremated remains? So many things!
1: Placing ashes in a cemetery or dedicated location
Plant a tree
Artificial Reef - US
Artificial Reef - UK
2: Scattering or dispersing ashes
Scatter from plane - UK
Scatter from plane - US
Scatter from high-altitude balloon drone at edge of space
Low-altitude scattering from radio controlled helicopter - UK
Space Flight - from US
Fireworks - UK
Fireworks - US
Bullets: rifle, pistol, shotgun (option: colored smoke)
3: Displaying the ashes at home
Pottery - Australia
Pottery - US (collective of artists)
Sculptures - UK
Stones to hold
3D printed action figure
4: Ways to keep ashes with you wherever you go
Diamonds - US, UK, Australia, New Zealand
Diamonds - US
Stuffed animal with recordable message option
Tattoo explainer: https://www.tattoodo.com/articles/memorial-tattoos-ashes-in-the-ink-4522
Custom Tattoo Ink
Hunter S. Thompson’s Funeral
Before we start, heads up that this episode contains some swearing, the sounds of fireworks and gunshots, a drill, and a reference to a sexual toy. Just so you’re aware. If you want this information without hearing those sounds, the transcript is available at DyingKindness.com.
There’s a scene in The Big Lebowski where Walter and the Dude scatter Donny’s ashes. They are standing on rocks overlooking the ocean, facing out, into the sun. The sound of wind mingles with the crashing waves. At the end of a rambling speech, Walter opens the Folgers can with Donny’s ashes and starts shaking it out. The wind picks up the ashes and blows them back all over the Dude.
Walter: Oh shit, Dude. I’m sorry. Goddamn wind.
Dude: Goddamnit, Walter!
It’s so funny and tragic and I have totally done this. When we scattered my roommate’s ashes we, too, had a romantic image in our mind of a seaside scattering - but the swirling wind made it farcical and we ended up wearing some of the ashes. We just started laughing. The entire scene was a good match for my roommate’s personality. Still, there’s a lesson in there: Before you scatter ashes, check the wind direction.
Hello, and welcome to Dying Kindness, the podcast for people who are going to die someday. I'm Cianna Stewart, and I'm going to die someday. You will too. So let's all learn what we need to do and make some key decisions before we die, in order to be kinder to those we'll leave behind. I believe we should write these decisions down and collect them into one place, what I call a Death Binder. You can get a template for your own Death Binder and more at my website: DyingKindness.com. On behalf of the people who love you, I thank you for taking care of them by thinking ahead. And now, on with the show.
Today I want to have a little fun and talk about the amazing options that are available for cremated remains, also known as cremains, or - more commonly - ashes. You will not believe how many choices you have! I’ll put links to everything in the show notes because I am sure you’re going to want to look some of these up later.
Like I said, there are tons of options, so create some kind of order, I’m gonna put them into four broad categories. These aren’t official, they’re just a good way for me to organize this episode.
I’m not going to talk today about the process of getting cremated. I’ll go into more detail about that in future episodes, including modern alternatives to traditional fire. But today is all about the end result of cremation, the ashes. And I’ll start with a few things you need to know about cremains to understand your options:
First, as Star Trek fans are well aware, our bodies are mostly water.
Alien: Ugly… Ugly bags of mostly water.
Picard: Bags of mostly water?
Data: An accurate description of humans, sir. You are over 90% water surrounded by a flexible container.
This means that in traditional fire-cremation, mostly our bodies evaporate. The solids that remain are then broken down by the fire. What’s left is basically ash (specifically, dry calcium phosphate and other minerals), and a few bone fragments. These days, crematories will grind it all down so that what you get back is a fine consistency. It feels like a combination of dust and sand.
How much dust and sand? A little under 4% of whatever the person weighed. That may not sound like much, but it’s usually around 5-7 pounds. Flour comes in five pound bags. The next time you’re in a grocery store, pick one up and imagine that you’re carrying your best friend’s ashes, just to get the feel of it.
Five pounds is actually kind of a lot, right? For the rest of this episode, it’s important that you have an understanding of just how much ash we’re talking about. The first time I dealt with cremains, I had no idea how long it would take to shake it all out of the bag. (And yes, if you don’t arrange to purchase an urn, you’ll likely be receiving the cremains in a sealed plastic bag enclosed in a cardboard box. So practical!) Picturing a bag of flour is useful so you can imagine how big urns can be.
The other thing you need to know before we dive into all the options is that ashes are sterile. Inside the crematory furnace, the temperature gets up to 1800 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s almost a thousand degrees Celsius. So what you get back is safe to touch -- and to do all kinds of other things with.
Are you ready? It’s time to answer the question, “What can you do with cremains?”
First category: Placing urns in a cemetery or other designated location
The most traditional option is to place cremated remains in an urn, and then inter the urn in a cemetery.
(I appreciate that the word “inter” specifically refers to burying a corpse. Anything else you put in the ground is just “buried.”)
Traditional urns for cemeteries are meant to last, and are often made from stone like marble. They can also be metal or pottery. In a cemetery, the urn can be buried in a regular plot or placed in a niche in a columbarium.
These days, many people want a green burial, meaning a burial that is more friendly to the environment. There are lots of different kinds of green burials and I’ll be covering them in future episodes. Today, we’re talking about burying cremation ashes in a way that’s ecologically sound. For instance, there are specially designated forests where compostable urns are buried among the trees. These urns are made from paper or grass or textiles or wood. In many places, these burials don’t include markers to keep the burial forest feeling, well, forest-y. Another option along these lines - the tree line - is to grow a tree directly from the ashes, using an urn which includes fertilized soil and either seeds or a sapling.
I am fascinated by these burial forests and will definitely be doing an episode on them in the future. I love that they’re taking advantage of both the law’s prohibition and public distaste for developments on cemetery land. It’s a cool idea for preserving open space.
Then again, land is not the only option for dedicated interment. If you’re more drawn to water than to trees, you could plan to have your ashes mixed in with concrete to form an artificial reef ball. It’s designed to help restore damaged reef systems which is so cool. Is that ball an urn? Does it qualify for this category? I’m going to say it is because it contains all the cremains. Anyway, the ball would then be placed in a memorial reef in the ocean where your scuba-diving loved ones could visit you in the future. As a diver myself, I’ve been partial to this option ever since I learned about it, but in the US the reefs are primarily on the southern and south-eastern coasts. I don’t know why there aren’t any on the West Coast yet. I’m such a Californian that I’m waiting for the left-coast option before I sign up.
On to the second category: Scattering or dispersing ashes
Scattering ashes can be considered another traditional option - but there are some modern very non-traditional versions that I’m including in this category.
Basic scattering is exactly what it sounds like. Your loved ones open the container and send your ashes into the wind (after you check the direction of course!). If you own private land, this is no problem. When it comes to public land, scattering is often not officially permitted, but it’s also usually not a priority to police for this. Just hope your loved ones scatter in a way that disperses the ash so it doesn’t end up in a big pile.
If you’re a gardener or a farmer, you could ask for your ashes to be raked or trenched into the soil. It’s kind of like the burial forest option, but dispersed, not in an urn.
There’s also the water option. Scattering into water that’s moving is not a big deal in most places. I would watch out for standing lakes and ponds, though, and be prepared for fish to nip at the ash thinking that it’s food. Then again, maybe you’re a fisherman and that sounds perfect!
To avoid the windy blowback problem, there are biodegradable urns designed for water. They’re made of paper that float for a while on the surface before they soak through and sink. There are also urns made of salt that can be dropped overboard, eventually dissolving completely after a few hours.
A note of caution: If you have a particular piece of land or body of water you want to be scattered in, check out any regulations before asking your loved ones to do that. It would suck for them if you are asking for something that would get them in trouble.
Does this kind of scattering sound too limited? Want your ashes scattered over a wider area? How about a low-altitude drone or a plane? Scattering ashes from a plane has been going on for years - but you might want to use a company that specializes in this instead of asking your friend with a pilot’s license. There are many stories of ash getting blown back into the cabin and all over the occupants. You think a shoreline breeze is bad? Think about the pressure difference outside and inside a plane!
Another cool flight option is skydivers! Skydivers can release ash during a jump. They could make a great final video for your memorial Insta feed, too.
Maybe a plane isn’t high enough for you. Your ashes could be released at the edge of space in a high altitude drone. It’s kinda daredevil style, like that record-setting dive by Alan Eustace, although you’d be dead so it’s not so scary.
Maybe near-orbit still isn’t high enough. Maybe you’ve always wanted to break that barrier and go to outer space. If you didn’t make it out of the atmosphere while you were alive, then send your ashes on a space flight! You can choose to go up and return, stay in orbit, or go out into deep space. Make your childhood astronaut fantasies come true!
Quick note on the space flight: This is the first option I’m mentioning that uses only a small portion of the ashes. Payloads and rocket fuel costs being what they are, the company doing this carries only a gram or so of the cremains. In fact, most of the rest of the options I’ll cover use just a little bit - so if you’re indecisive - ahem, multifaceted - like me, maybe your cremains will take on several new forms after you’re dead!
On a related note, a little story about Hunter S. Thompson: True to how he lived, his funeral was crazy and spectacular. He designed and built a rocket himself for the occasion. It was shaped like a giant fist. When he died, his friends loaded up the ashes into the rocket and shot it off while fireworks exploded around it. A video of the funeral sounds like a Burning Man party. Now that’s planning ahead!
OK back to earth, and to our category of scattering ashes: Maybe you want to get all Hunter S Thompson and go out with a bang but you don’t have the wherewithal to build a rocket? I have two suggestions for you: fireworks or guns!
For fireworks, your ash is shot off with the black powder. The last anyone will see of you is bright lights in the sky. You can choose either a full-scale professional fireworks show or to have your ashes loaded into multiple shots that your loved ones can fire on their own. Of course, as a Californian, I would be remiss if I didn’t include a reminder to ask for this to happen over water because please, PLEASE, people. Do not turn a memorial into a wildfire!
And last on my scattering options list is bullets. Yes, if you’re an avid hunter, your loved ones can take you for your last hunt using bullets filled with your cremains. Actually maybe several hunts because you can get something like 240 bullets made with one person’s cremains. I told you there’s a lot! If you want more of a gun salute than a hunt, there’s also a “Patriot” choice - shells filled with cremains and a substance that makes the gunsmoke red, white, and blue.
And now we come to the last two categories: Keeping ashes at home, and ways to carry ashes with you. For both of these categories, I’m going to switch from talking about requests we’d make for our own remains to talking about choices the survivors make on their own. Why? Well, because I think people should get to choose for themselves if they want to live with that kind of reminder day in and day out. No matter how much we love someone, it can become a burden to feel obligated to live with ashes if we don’t make that choice ourselves.
It can feel good to feel like we’re keeping someone we love close to us. It could also feel like an anchor, preventing us from moving through our grief and carrying on with our lives. It’s totally personal and either way is ok.
I feel like all of the choices in these last two categories are amazing and fantastic for some people and totally horrible for others. And we should each be allowed to make that choice for ourselves.
Time for category three: Keeping ashes at home
Taking ashes home for display is another traditional choice. What’s interesting and new these days is the design of the urns. Traditional urns are often shaped like simple boxes with a plaque, or like grecian urns. Common variations include adding a photo or a clock. However nowadays you don’t have to stick to those basic shapes. You can choose containers designed to reflect the hobbies or lifestyle of the person who died. It can look like a race car or golf clubs or ammo box or a stack of books or a tardis. You can place cremains into a chess piece or have them pressed into a checkers set.
3D printing has opened up an entirely new world of custom shapes, making it possible to create one-off designs based on a photo. Yes, this includes urns that are like small busts of the deceased, or even full-body action figures (I don’t think you can put all five pounds of ash in them, though).
And then there’s art! So many artistic options! Just go to Etsy and look up “cremation art” to see pages and pages of choices.
Ashes can be integrated into glass, creating wonderful swirls and textures in sculptures and suncatchers.
Artists can mix ash into paint and make a portrait or really any kind of painting.
Cremains can be mixed into pottery and then crafted by an artist to be a one-of-a-kind sculpture. Not a container to hold ash, but a sculpture made of the ash itself.
For the garden, you can have pottery made that’s designed to sit outside, or you can have ashes turned into garden stones.
Speaking of outdoors, did you know that there are urns that double as birdhouses? The ashes are contained and don’t get eaten by the birds. But why not let a birdwatcher continue to be visited by their feathered friends?
For tactile folks, ashes can be pressed into stones that are smooth and nice to hold. These seem perfect for home altars or to be used in a meditation practice.
One option you might have read about that doesn’t actually exist: pencils. One time, an artist did a project making a set of pencils using cremains. That got picked up by the media and now people think it’s a real possibility, and it keeps ending up on lists of “what to do with cremains.” But she never commercialized it and I haven’t actually seen that option offered anywhere. I’m kinda bummed about that. As a writer and avid reader, I think it would have been cool for my body to transform into pencils. I’d probably have to instruct people to use them, though, not just save them or keep them in a drawer. And to use them for all kinds of things like first drafts of novels and sketches on the subway and shopping lists. That would be so excellent.
A different artist designer does hope his piece catches on: A dildo containing your lover’s ashes. Yes, that’s a real thing. A dildo. It’s expensive, made from blown glass and gold-plated brass, and will be delivered in a special locking box. They’re handmade one at a time. It’s not for everyone, but if that’s your thing, it’s out there.
Last option for keeping cremains at home is one of the coolest: Pressing ashes into a vinyl record. Yup. This one’s for those of us who care about audio (and you’re listening to a podcast so I’m going to guess this includes you). There’s a company mixing ashes into vinyl and pressing records with the audio of your choice. I just adore that! Maybe one day a set of Dying Kindness records containing my ashes will be spinning on a turntable…
“Hello, I’m Cianna Stewart, and I’m going to die someday. You will too.”
Now, at last, we come to the fourth and final category: Ways to keep ashes with you wherever you go. If you do a search online for “cremation jewelry” you’ll see a huge range of choices of fillable jewelry from pendants to bracelets to earrings. Each one holds just a tiny bit, but that’s enough to feel like you’re keeping a loved one with you. You don’t want to be carrying around an extra five pounds everywhere, do you?
The fillable jewelry choice is part of a new tradition I was surprised to learn about but which makes total sense - getting a set of matching pendants to fill and share among loved ones. You’ll see some jewelry is sold in sets of 5 or 10 for exactly this.
I’ve already talked about mixing ash into glass - this can also be done for jewelry, not just sculpture, and the results can be really beautiful.
Prefer jewelry with more bling? How about pressing that ash into a diamond? Lab-created diamonds have been around since the 1950s, but they’ve only been made from cremains for less than 20 years. Of course, once you have a diamond, you can set it any way you want. Ring? Necklace? Tiara?
Here’s something that was totally new to me: motorcycle bells. They are bells gifted to riders to attach to their bikes as a kind of good luck charm to keep them safe. Apparently this has been going on since the end of the Second World War. Bells have long been used to chase away evil spirits and pilots started putting them into their planes. When they returned from the war, those pilots attached bells to their motorcycles and the tradition stuck. Nowadays there are mini-urns shaped like motorcycle bells, ready to be filled with ash so you can take the deceased with you on the open road. Of course, since they don’t ring, they don’t bring the same kind of protection, so riders usually put them next to the other “real” motorcycle bells.
The most heartwarming and saddest thing on this list is a plush toy. There are teddy bears and other plushies that can hold ashes, especially for kids who have lost parents, or anyone who still wants to cuddle with someone who’s gone. There’s even a model that will play back a recording, like a message from the deceased. I can’t think about this one too much or I’ll cry.
And last, the absolutely most personal option, the one that I really believe no one should specify in their final wishes: including ashes in a tattoo. This has become quite popular and many tattoo artists do it. Usually an artist will mix ashes into the ink. The biggest challenge is to get the cremains fine ground enough for this to work, so talk with your tattoo artist and the funeral director if you plan to do this. A variation is to use a company that specializes in making ink that integrates ash. Cremation tattoos are safe and generally have the same appearance as regular tattoos - they just take a little longer to heal and can be itchy in the process. Still, if you’re into body art and really want to remember someone forever, this might be the option for you.
So many choices! I highly suggest checking out the links at DyingKindness.com so that you can see some of these. They’re amazing! I especially loved looking at the 3D action figures. And the birdhouses. And the high altitude drone release. And who knows what other options we’ll have in the future? I can’t wait! Well, that’s not true. Actually, I’m ok with waiting.
Thank you for joining me today. If you want to support my efforts to help people do death planning in advance, please tell someone about this show. Better yet, use the share button in your podcast player to send a link directly to this episode. Right now my focus is on growing this show and that would really help me out. Thanks!
The music is by Blue Dot Sessions. Everything else was done by me. You can find the transcript and links to everything I talked about at DyingKindness.com. Until next time, I’m Cianna Stewart, and I’m going to die someday - but hopefully, not before there are more options for artificial reefs.
Today’s death reading is a poem by Emily Dickinson
Ashes denote that Fire was —
Revere the Grayest Pile
For the Departed Creature's sake
That hovered there awhile —
Fire exists the first in light
And then consolidates
Only the Chemist can disclose
Into what Carbonates.