Moral & Legal Disposition of Cremated Remains


For an increasing number of people, the decision to cremate is simple. What they may or may not do with the ashes is a different matter entirely. While traditional burial is fairly straightforward, cremation opens up a world of choices for people planning for the future and their families. This decision comes with a variety of new concerns to address. By looking at the legal, religious and moral ramifications surrounding cremation, families can make the best selections for them and their loved ones’ final wishes.

Legal Considerations

leagal-and-moral-issuesEven though cremation is becoming more popular each year, many families find themselves confused about what to do with cremated remains. Should they bury, scatter or keep the ashes? For a lot of people, cremation is a newer concept, which makes them question the legality of whatever choices they make. It is good, then, that there are a lot of options available to families for disposition of the ashes.

A considerable number of people wish to have their loved one’s ashes buried in a cemetery in a permanent urn. Some cemeteries feature columbariums, specific buildings designed to hold cremated remains. But, this is not the only choice families can make. Ashes may be kept at home legally anywhere in the U.S. When people plan for their cremation and memorial service, scores of them wish to have their ashes scattered in a location that was particularly meaningful to them. If that spot is private property, the family need only obtain permission from the owner.

For public property, the rules are a bit murkier. For example, if someone wishes to scatter ashes at a national park, they may find that park very accommodating. Many national parks allow people to scatter ashes, with a few concessions. The ashes should be fully scattered, not left in a pile. Families must pick a spot that is away from common walkways and water (e.g. lakes, ponds, rivers). Other public venues have different rules that will depend largely on the management’s preferences.

Scattering or burying ashes in water requires a different approach. Most states do not allow people to scatter ashes in rivers or on beaches, although California permits scattering 500 yards from the beach. In some states, pilots may scatter ashes by plane, but they must drop it from a minimum altitude. Many families who wish to dispose of the ashes at sea discover that burial is easier to manage than scattering. The Environmental Protection Agency allows boats and planes to drop ashes in a biodegradable urn three nautical miles from the shore.

Religious Concerns

The decision to bury, scatter or keep the ashes at home is affected by the person’s religious beliefs, as well. Since all religions are different, the expectations for final ceremonies and burial may vary widely. However, most require that the bodies of loved ones, whether they are kept whole or cremated, should be treated with the utmost respect. And, major world religions are adjusting their perspectives to accommodate a greater Western preference for cremation over traditional burial.

The Roman Catholic Church, for example, now permits cremation. The church recognizes that about 20-40 percent of Catholics would prefer to be cremated. Catholicism had a general preference toward burial until the 19th Century, when Catholic clerics codified rules against performing last rites on individuals who intended to be cremated. However, in the last half of the 20th Century, the church undid that policy. Now, faithful Catholics who wish to be cremated may receive all the rites and ceremonies due to them, with one caveat. They must agree that they are choosing to be cremated, even though they believe in the resurrection of the body.

For people in the Jewish tradition, the rules are less obvious. It reflects some deep discussion and disagreement between various sects of Judaism. The basic principle is simple: according to Jewish tradition, when people die, they should return their bodies to the earth. While this denotes a clear preference for burial, as opposed to keeping the ashes or scattering them, there is also disagreement. Some Jewish scholars argue that this precept bans cremation.

Others note that the Torah and Talmud do not specifically forbid cremation. As such, many rabbis in the Reform and Conservative Jewish sects opt to perform burial ceremonies for those who have been cremated. They say that cremated remains must be buried in a Jewish cemetery. But, many more rabbis do not, claiming that those families who choose cremation often do not follow other important rituals following the death of a loved one. The message, however, is clear: despite disagreement about the permission to cremate, all ceremonies and rituals must be followed.

Moral Matters

Respect is a common thread, tying together all the considerations families have to make when debating how to deal with a loved one’s cremated remains. Respect for the body. Respect for the place of burial or scattering. Respect for the religion that the person belongs to. This means that families should approach the disposition of ashes from a perspective of care and concern. While this may seem obvious, it is not to everyone. Some families end up leaving the ashes at the funeral home because they do not know what to do with them. In some cases, those ashes remain there for decades.

Ultimately, while traditional burial and cremation are two very different concepts, they also have a lot in common. In both cases, families should be given the opportunity to grieve in the form of a funeral or memorial service. Preferably, families should schedule the service shortly after their loved ones have died. That way, friends and relatives can gather to reminisce and remember the person who passed, as a means to progress through their own journeys of grief. And then, after the ceremony, the ashes may be properly buried, scattered in the right location, kept at home, or some combination of these. With the right approach, families show their regard for their loved ones and the institutions and world around them.

While there are many rules about the scattering or burial of ashes, people can still find wonderful options that will serve their loved ones’ preferences. The key is to honor the loved one who has passed, with proper attention to the disposition of ashes and performance of rituals and ceremonies important to the deceased’s spiritual beliefs. With this attention and an opportunity for family and friends to grieve through a memorial service, families resolve the most important legal, religious and moral considerations facing them.


  1. Ramona

    Grandson has dads Ashes and will not let me and sister have. Dad has a Burial plot next to mom, what can I do?

  2. Ramona

    I have ask him for ashes so we could something he told me I didn’t deserve them

  3. //

    It’s important to always hire a professional when available to help with a scattering ceremony. That ensures your scattering goes smoothly and follows all local and federal laws. My company scatters off the Florida coastline. I refer my customers to your site and recommend that families always purchase keepsake urns before committing ashes to the sea. Your selection is by far the best available.

  4. Gina

    Are you able to bury cremated remains on someone else’s grave site

  5. //

    Hello Gina,

    Depending on the location of the grave site, you will need approval from either the property owner or the cemetery in which the remains rest. If it is a cemetery, contact them regarding their polices and they will prompt you with further steps to take. There are plenty of options for the scatter and burial of cremation remains. The most popular choices are listed in one of our blog posts about the Top 10 Options for Cremation Remains . This will provide you a list of pros and cons and also provide some more insight into cremation remains.

    Susan Fraser

  6. //

    Hello Ramona,

    This is one of many common issues when loved ones pass. People handle grief in different ways. It is important to find constructive ways each family member deals with the loss of a loved one. Are there any children that are going through the grieving process? To help them better understand and cope with a death in the family, there are certain steps you can take with children and the process of grieving. The loss of a loved one is not an easy situation to go through, with time and contemplation emotions may subside. What state do you live in? Each state has their own set of laws regarding who has the legal rights of a loved one’s cremains. Did your father have a will stating what will happen if and when he passes and how his cremains were to be distributed? If so, then the document by law is followed.

    Susan Fraser

  7. //

    Hello Ramona,

    Like I had said in the previous reply, people respond differently in their grieving process. I suggest hiring a trust or probate attorney because they deal with estate management, while providing direct guidance in managing trusts, decedents’ estates, and other fiduciary responsibilities. I hope your family comes to a conclusion soon. Many families deal with conflicts similar to the one you are going through.

    Susan Fraser

  8. //


    Dear Ms Fraser:

    I was told that one cremains cannot be placed over another cremains. Is this true? If so, I’d like to know why. I looked it up online, but couldn’t find the answer.

    If you would respond by emailing me at:, I’d really appreciate it.

    Thank you for your time.


    Ruth DaCorsi

  9. Robert Hopper

    I do not think it is wright/correct/or moral for one or more persons to take possession of anyone’s remains.
    If a person wishes to be cremated, that’s there wishes, but all the ashes should be scattered/buried after the greaving period (in a reasonable time frame). Most people I know do not want to deal with the remains especially if the person that has them meets there demise.

  10. //

    This is true, many people do not feel comfortable handling cremated ashes, sometimes depending on their moral stance or religious beliefs. In my opinion though, I have always felt it is best to honor the wishes of the deceased, whatever that may be. If they had wished for their ashes to be split among several family members, scattered or kept all together within a home or cemetery, that wish should be honored. Of coarse, situations do arise, making it harder to honor a loved ones final wishes. Financial situations tend to be a big one, but out of respect for the deceased I feel it would be proper to uphold there final wishes the best way possible.

  11. Rose

    Dear Ms Fraser,

    My father in law was cremated and put in a clam to be put in the ocean like he wanted and like it said in his will. He passed away around Father’s day 2017.

    His four children (ranging from ages 24-34) were waiting for their Uncles (father’s brothers) and the spouse (their stepmom and next of kin) to decide where and when to do so..

    However, the stepmom decided to bury the clam (we just found this out a day ago) instead at a random cemetery near her house and did not discuss this with the children beforehand. We are also not sure when this was done.

    Their father’s will stated exactly what he wanted done, but she did not honor it.

    What can we do in regards to exhuming the ashes and holding her responsible for causing even more pain and heartache to his children?

  12. //

    Hello Rose,

    I’m so sorry, I hope you are able to get this resolved. If he had a will that stated what he wanted done with his cremains then the will should have been honored first. I would suggest getting in contact with a trust or probate attorney at this point and they should be able to help sort out the details in regards to the will and give direct guidance on how to get this properly resolved. I hope the best for you and your family, let me know if there is anything else I can help with.

    Susan Fraser

  13. Kathi Farrell

    My mother didn’t specify what to do with her after death. My sister had her cremated, which was fine. Now she wants to put her in or on- not sure my fathers grave. They divorced in 1970 and she never had a kind word to say about him. She was awful to him towards the end. And angry with me for planning his funeral. Of the three girls I was the only one listed as a survivor in the obituary. My older sister didn’t want people to know and my mother made the decision for my younger. He was murdered. Older didn’t want people to make the connection. It was in papers from Redding CA to San Francisco.

    The cemetery told me they don’t think there is room to add a grave. He is very close to the base of a redwood with his parents. How do I stop her from putting mom in or on dads grave? Providing she remembers where he is. I’ve told her and as first born next of kin when he died she bought the gravesite so I have no say there. She has memory problems. She is also horrible to me. Calls or txts screaming obscenities asking where he is. I blocked her.

    So, does anyone know if a restraining order or some way to stop her? I really don’t think she’ll pay to have the grave opened. Thinking I should give the cemetery a heads up if she remembers and calls looking for dads grave to sprinkle ashes. Any advice welcome and I am so sorry we all are here.

  14. Brenda Reeter

    Hi you have a user friendly site It was very easy to post all the best

  15. penny montgomery

    My sister passed away 8 months ago, she had no insurance, I paid over half the cost of cremation, while my niece, her daughter kept money from other family members and friends, and dinner , auction to raise money, she paid last $400. And took ashes home, my sister and my family are native american, my sister wanted a native funeral, my niece refused to give me ashes day before funeral, my niece instead made herself and kids, grandkids necklaces out of my sister’s ashes, we held the native funeral without ashes, our belief as natives is her spirit can’t rest now

  16. Connie Wilt

    My brother committed suicide almost a yr and half ago. We did not have no money to give him a burial site. Now I want one. He belongs for all to see and visit him? Is this weird? Would it be costly? I still can’t open the urn, and want to visit him where I believe that he should of been in the first place.

  17. //

    My son is deceased. His body was cremated and we have placed his ashes in a decorative urn. He was over 21 when he died, and not a vet.

    Question: Can his urn be placed INSIDE my casket when I die, or be treated as a separate burial (with an urn liner) even though using the same burial plot (VA national cemetery) as mine ? Note: my body will not be cremated.

  18. Judie

    Mama always said, just put my ashes on top of Daddy. I have placed her headstone besides Daddy’s and would like to just kinda divide them. Half for Daddy and other half for Mama. How deep do you suppose I need to go before I can safely scatter the ashes and recover again with the same soil?

  19. //

    Hello Judie,

    Where are you planning on placing the ashes? Are the headstones at a cemetery or a personal memorial spot?

  20. //

    Hello Connie,

    I’m so sorry for your loss, I don’t think its weird that you are now wanting to give him a burial site. Its always nice to have a place to go to be able to visit our lost loved ones. Cost could vary depending on location and cemetery. Is there a specific place you are wanting to have his burial site?

  21. //

    Hello George,

    VA National Cemeteries have a lot of different regulations. I know a dependent or spouse of a deceased veteran can be buried in a VA National Cemetery, but they do have certain requirement in regards to the dependents. I would suggest taking a look HERE, they give some more information in regards to VA Burial and have a contact number at the bottom of the page if you have any further questions.

    Susan Fraser

  22. Lynn

    My parents passed away about 11 years ago. My brother had their ashes in two lovely urns, but then decided he was uncomfortable having them in his home, so he bought a plot in our hometown cemetery and had them buried, which I knew they didn’t want, only telling me after it was done. I would like to exhume their ashes and disperse them as I know they wanted. Is this something I can do without going to court? There was nothing in their will about this. Thanks in advance for any advice.

  23. //

    Hello Lynn,

    I’m really sorry you are having to deal with all of this, unfortunately situations like yours are not uncommon. The laws tend to vary from state to state, in what state is the cemetery located?

    Susan Fraser

  24. Nona Deater

    Ms. Fraser, My daughter is a lost 1 of her twins. Do to her drug use she lost her 3 other daughters. I paid for the babies creamatìon, and her urn. The hospital was going to put her in garbage. My daughter lived here till Feb, leaving behind my granddaughter in her urn Now she is demanding that I return them to her after 20 months. Do I really have to return them. She has lost her 14 yo, 3 yo, and the baby is almost 2. Can I make her remove her from the urn I purchased and return the urn.

  25. Hope

    My friend bidded on her ex boyfriend storage unit and won. In the shed was her ex boyfriend mother’s ashes. My bestfriend refuse to give it back to him. What right in California does he have to get them back?

  26. //

    Hello Hope,

    I’m sorry to hear about the trouble your friend is going through. When someone passes the first person with legal rights to the cremains would be a living spouse, if the spouse is not around the rights would be passed down to the children/descendants, unless there is a will that states otherwise. If he is not able to obtain the ashes in a civil way and there is no will in place stating his rights to the ashes I would suggest hiring a lawyer to help get this situation sorted out.

  27. //

    Hello Nona,

    Laws tend to vary from state to state, what state are you located in?

    Susan Fraser

  28. Timothy

    My question is a little off but , I’ve recently fallen on hard times and we lost our house , we were able to put our belongings in a public storage facility, in my stuff is my sons ashes , more hard times hit us and we weren’t able to keep up with the storage and it was sold , my question is all of my sons things and ashes are all I had left now is there any law or moral obligation to the new owner to at least give my sons ashes back to me

  29. Dick Sechler

    My oldest son just died and was cremated. I had a younger son who also died thirty years ago,and is buried in a standard grave. (whole body burial in casket) This is a private rural cemetery and I would like to know from you if I could inter the ashes from the oldest son into the younger son’s grave. And if so, how deep should we bury the oldest son’s cremains? thank you. Please answer by email.

  30. //

    Hello Timothy,

    I’m so sorry to hear about your trouble, I would suggest contacting the storage facility ASAP to see if you can get in contact with the new owner to claim back the ashes. If you are the father you do have legal rights to the cremains and hopefully the new storage owner is understanding of the situation once you explain. I truly wish you the best and hope everything works out, let me know if you have any other questions.

    Susan Fraser

  31. Lorin Alcorn

    I am currently in the middle of a divorce and I am a recovering addict my husband just went to prison he never found recovery when we split I begged him to let me hold the Ash’s until he got established and on you feet he refused I have the original urn with some of his dad but he took both new urns of his mom and dad while he was living with someone ue robbed them and now they refuse to give me the ashes unless I give them 500$ which I do not have what can I do about this also with the part of his dad’s Ash’s I have now and the ones I’m trying to get back I am having it written up in divorce agreement either to split the Ash’s between my husband’s kids and him in which I would keep his part until he is established or send them to his cousin who lives in another state or the final idea is to scatter them somewhere special and that is what I am really thinking would be the best his father has been dead since 1995 and has been passed through everyone stolen by a couple fought over when his mom was high she tried busting the urn open and flushing it down the toilet. This poor man hasn’t had any peace since he passed so I think if I scatter them somewhere nice and make it a special day it would be best. His cousin wants me to send them to her and she is very sweet and responsible but at this point I have watched the Ash’s go through so much just in the 13 years I’ve known my husband not to mention everything that they went through before we met and as I am trying to be considerate of everyone I think it’s time I just think about his dad and mom and what they would want and where they should be so they can rest in peace but I am open to any and all opinions and advice or legal advice in getting the other ashes back I am not asking for anything in my divorce for myself my only terms for divorce is that I make a copy of each picture I have of his family and him and give each of his kids a copy and give him the original and an extra couple copies in case there are any more children in the future and that we settle where the Ash’s will go that will be in the best interest of his mom and dad and nobody else. We were together 11years married nine I loved him so much but drugs destroyed that and when I got clean he was not ready but I know he is a great man and is just battling his own Demons and is not in the best state to be handling special important things and stuff or making any major important decisions that he would regret in the future when he gets better NOBODY SHOULD GO THROUGH THAT but I told him if he was not agree to the terms that we will be married forever cause it don’t matter to many I am happy and have moved forward and am with an amazing man we have been apart over two years and have since built a different and better relationship as friends except when he is high I don’t plan to ever marry again so the divorce just a want not a necessity I would rather see his parents at peace and children with pictures of the family they will never meet cuz they pased and some that they might want to reach out to in the future. None of my. Terms are to benefit me except one that I can keep his last name if I choose to which is something we talked and agreed about before we married I will eventually change it when my finances get a little better but until then it won’t be something I have to stress about.
    AGAIN I AM HOPING AND OPEN TO ANY OPINIONS AND ADVICE ON ANY OF THESE SITUATIONS AND DEFINITELY OPEN TO ANY LEGAL ADVICE TO HELP ME GET MY LOVED ONES ASHES BACK. although they were not my parents I was extremely close to his mom and she lived with us and I was her caretaker/payee for 9 years and his dad passed long before wet met but I have heard so many wonderful stories over the years and I have wish I would have known him I just picture him like santa clause a amazing jolly wonderful man who would give his shirt off his back for ABSOLUTELY ANYONE morally everyone deserves to be able to rest in peace but my heart just keeps telling me to put his parents interest first it’s finally about them and nobody else and everyone who loved them I hope they will all understand and appreciate this decision and realize I really did it for his parents and I’m not being a bitcg

  32. Gloria Tanner

    I have a question: A construction worker I hired brought his wife’s ashes on the job and placed them in my garage with intentions of scattering them one day – He said he was between apartments at the time and couldn’t keep carrying them around (he also had no vehicle ). My problem is he left the job and has not returned for his wife’s ashes and I have not been able to locate him; what can I do about this situation? I feel terrible that the remains have been so neglected – I feel its very disrespectful plus I am wondering if I have any legal obligation in this situation. I know morally I would like to see her remains properly and respectfully placed somewhere. Please reply!

  33. //

    Hello Gloria,

    How long has it been since you last had contact with the construction worker? Have you had the cremains for more than a year? Sounds like such an unfortunate situation, but it’s so kind of you to want to help. It’s actually pretty common for cremains to get left at funeral homes and crematories for years at a time and most of the time they end up never getting claimed by a loved one, which is truly sad.

  34. Justin

    Can a funeral home hold ashes until payment is fully made. I heard it was illegal and the funeral home director even said it was illegal. My brother lost his wife and they are holding her ashes because 2 dollars haven’t been paid. It’ll be easy to pay but their stance seems off and a bit wrong. Do you know the laws funeral homes have to obide by?

  35. //

    Hello Justin,

    The laws will vary from state to state and each funeral home will have its own set of regulations as well. What state is your brother located in? Even though it doesn’t seem morally right to hold someones cremains ransom for a mere 2$, the funeral home may have there own financial reasoning behind it. The cost to perform a cremation is very high and most funeral homes make very little profit in return and this can cause some funeral homes to be more strict with there payment requirements depending on where they stand financially.

  36. Amy Herron

    I’ve tried to get a clear understanding of the law(s) if any, here in Ohio on scattering of ashes on property. My uncle passed away in his home, and his son has scattered him in the front yard. My uncle owned the home, it will be put up for sale soon as its cleared out. As his son wants nothing to do with any of it as much as possible. It just seems morally wrong at very least! Especially to whomever the new owner may be, esp.not knowing of such situations! This is a busy city.

  37. //

    Hello Amy,

    Im so sorry for your loss. It does not seem morally right but unfortunately when struck with grief people tend to not make the best or smartest decisions. Your uncles son may be acting out of grief, instead of really thinking about the long term affects. Ohio doesn’t have any state laws that control where cremated remains can be kept or scattered. Cremation ashes are harmless and it is okay to scatter on your own personal property. The property owner would need to give permission if you do not own the property. Did your uncles son become the property owner once your uncle passed away?

  38. Amy Herron

    Hi again, yes ( under obvious assumption) my uncle is now the property owner, until cleaned out & sold. My cousin lives out of state and hasn’t had anything to do with his father for lilttle over 30 years. Ex-spouse is decreased as well. I have 1 other uncle in very poor health in a nursing home, & have been in communcation with, and then 1 other also dc’d & and my father whos was my Grandma’s 3rd son and is in the best shape. Communication has definitely lacked over the years, to say the least. So know that my uncle is sprinkled in his front lawn..Would it be unlawful for me to scoop him up and take him to his mothers grave site, perhaps?

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