A man caused quite a commotion in New York this last weekend when he spread his friends cremated ashes at the Met Opera House in the orchestra pit during an intermission. Instead of the touching tribute he intended for opera loving mentor, his actions caused the performance to be stopped while the New York Police Department's Counterterrorism Unit was deployed to investigate his actions. He is now facing serious legal problems.
Also last week, the Catholic Church issued guidelines for its members to clarify its position on what exactly is the proper place for cremated remains.
I am often asked what are the legal and religious issues regarding the keeping, transporting and spreading of ashes here in Michigan? In response, I thought it best to pass along some information.
First, some background. The cremation rate in the United States continued its rise – to 48.6 percent in 2015, up from 47 percent in 2014 – reflecting a steadily growing public preference for cremation, according to a report released recently by the Cremation Association of North America. They further project that the U.S. cremation rate will reach nearly 55 percent by 2020. In Canada, cremation rates soon will hit 75%. That preference has more than doubled in just the last 25 years. This isn't just a trend, but rather a significant societal shift.
That posses 2 questions: What does my church think? And what are the laws on what can be done with cremated remains afterwards? We will look at the position of the 5 major religions in the next article, but today let's focus on Michigan law and particularly the rules regarding the possession and spreading of cremated remains.
What usually happens to cremated remains?
Many myths surround the practice of scattering cremated ashes. It doesn't help that the laws are often complicated, confusing or nonexistent. Knowing what the laws are or who to ask about them can save you from a lot of frustration and worry. One of the most common myths is that scattering cremated ashes is a hazard to the public's health. The truth is, once a human body has been cremated, it is no longer considered a health risk, so cremated ashes are usually not something federal or state officials are typically concerned with.
So then what is normally done with cremated remains? It depends on the family. According to some studies, most often — two-thirds of the time — people keep cremated remains of their loved ones, either in a vault at a cemetery or mausoleum, or at home in one or more containers. The other third of cremated remains are scattered. This is where the law can create problems for some people.
Where can we store or scatter ashes after cremation?
In Michigan, there are currently no state laws controlling where you may keep or scatter ashes. Ashes may be stored in a crypt, niche, grave, or container at home. If you wish to scatter ashes, you have many options. Let's look at each option.
You are allowed to spread ashes on your own private property. You are also allowed to keep cremated ashes in an urn or container on your own property or in your home.
To scatter cremated ashes on private land you do not own, ask the owner for permission first. The permission can be verbal or written. If the owner refuses, do not attempt to access the land, or you can be charged with trespassing. If you are not sure if an area of land is private or public, check with your town hall first or consult a town map.
All cemeteries permit ashes to be interned in a grave or mausoleum. But these services can cost a significant amount of money, and most cemeteries have strict rules. In contrast, scattering cremated ashes in cemeteries or parks is usually allowed, although some local communities have recently passed laws banning the practice, so check with your town officials. The ashes are generally spread on a grave, in a crypt or in a scattering garden within the graveyard. You may want to check with the management of the cemetery first beforehand.
Years ago, I had a family call me because the police had been called when they took shovels to a cemetery to dig a hole above their parent's gravesite to place the urn containing their sibling's ashes. They had called the cemetery, and where told there would be a sizable fee for this service, so they decided to do this themselves - feeling that they had a deed to the actual plot. However, the cemetery rules required any interment to be conducted only by the cemetery itself. I was able to reach a quick compromise, whereby the family was able to spread the ashes above the family's plot.
Lastly, to scatter ashes on old family graveyards found on private property, you must ask for permission from the landowner. If you are scattering the ashes on another person's grave, such as a friend or relative, you should ask the immediate family of that person for permission first.
Michigan again has no state laws. Federal law states that spreading ashes on the sea, which is considered a burial at sea, must be done at least 3 miles away from the shore. Federal law also requires that you report the burial at sea to the closest Environmental Protection Agency office within a month of the burial. Spreading ashes in inland waterways, such as rivers and lakes, falls under the Clean Water Act and may require a permit from the local government. According to the Funeral Consumers Alliance, these laws are designed to protect waterways from pollution and because cremated human remains are not a health hazard, it is not usually enforced in these cases.
If you are thinking of full body burial at sea, more information can be found at Burial of Human Remains at Sea on the EPA website.
State Parks or Public Lands
Scattering ashes on public land. You may wish to check both city and county regulations and zoning rules before scattering ashes on local public land, such as in a city park. However, many people simply proceed as they wish, letting their best judgment be their guide. If you are considering a lake within a state park, again, the Clean Water Act also governs scattering in inland waters such as rivers or lakes. Consequently, you may be legally required to obtain a permit from the state agency that manages the waterway. I spoke with a Michigan DNR officer who said he has never heard of anyone issued a ticket or prevented from spreading a loved one's ashes in a Michigan lake.
Officially, you should request permission before scattering ashes on federal land. As with local or state land, however, you will probably encounter no resistance if you conduct the scattering ceremony quietly and keep the ashes well away from trails, roads, facilities, and waterways. You can find guidelines for scattering ashes on the websites for some national parks.
From an Airplane
Some people have requested scattering their ashes by air. While there are no state laws on the matter, federal aviation laws do prohibit dropping any objects that might harm people or property. The U.S. government does not consider cremains to be hazardous material; all should be well so long as you remove the ashes from their container before scattering.
There are no "scattering ashes police" in any state to ensure proper etiquette, permits, or permissions are obtained and used. There are no health, safety or environmental issues to be concerned about. Your own family's moral compass is usually right within the reasons of common sense when it comes to handling the remains of a loved one. I would just avoid the unannounced spreading of ashes at a public event in this age of heightened fear over terrorism, or you might find yourself in the legal mess equal to our opera loving friend.