2011: Cremation Ash Disposition Without Tradition

What Now? Cremation Without Tradition examined the experiences of people who planned, and conducted or participated in, ceremonies for someone who was cremated, with special focus on what they did with the ashes and how the experiences benefited the participants. The cases reflected the current trend in which the former authorities—funeral directors or clergy—have diminished roles or no roles at all. “How to create a ceremony from scratch” may become a widespread matter of interest for homegrown funeral planners in the next decade. Customers may still choose traditional ceremonies and burial of the remains. But more often they are going in a different direction. People who created ad hoc rituals for ash disposition can teach us something about different options for ceremonial treatment of ashes, and also about what makes “ritual,” in the generic sense of the word, work.1

Subjects: 56 adults, ages 20 to 85, average age = 44.3, “who were actively involved in cremation and ash disposition decisions.” 40 were females and 16 males. They described a total of 87 cremation ritual events—78 humans and 9 dogs. Most were current or former residents of California.

Main findings

Over 80% of the respondents said the personalized rituals they created were positive experiences, even when things did not go smoothly.

The act of ritualization came naturally to participants who had begun with no idea of what to do, and even though “Americans were quite aware that they were making things up,” the ceremonies were perceived as meaningful.

About 21% of the cases were buried at a cemetery, or were going to be buried, in whole or in part. Most of these were spouses interred to join a spouse who had already died.

Most subjects believed that scattering was what they were supposed to do with the ashes. Those who did not scatter, without prompting, explained why they had not done so.

Study detail

When someone dies, there are now many options for how to dispose of a loved one’s body, what kind of ceremonies to have, what kind of permanent memorial to have, or whether to have anything at all. Some people will their bodies to “science” and that is the end of it. Some bodies are cremated but no one ever picks up the ashes. For some, there is a funeral with embalming and viewing, and the body is interred at a cemetery after the cremation. In most cases, the only real requirement is that the body be removed from the space of the living, for which there are a limited number of allowed choices, and beyond that anything goes.

Most of the time, the remains are taken care of at the direction of family or friends, and something specific is done with them, and some type of ceremony is held along the way.

In this new funeral era of untethered consumers, with little constraint on or mandate for ceremonies or disposition, funeral practices are becoming less the province of brick-and-mortar institutions, and more in the realm of what are termed “emerging postdeath rituals”—a loose, postmodern framework characterized by individual choice, personalization, and eclectic blending of elements at the whim of the participants. Web memorials and spontaneous roadside memorials reflect the same postmodern trend.

Cremation disposition decisions are still a sparsely studied topic, along with most things involving funerals. Recent studies in Japan and the United Kingdom had found that trends toward increased scattering of cremated remains showed the survivors found meaning in the scattering process: new rituals brought new types of meaningfulness.

To find out if and how cremation rituals in the U.S. brought benefits to those involved, Roberts interviewed 56 people responsible for 87 cremations (78 human), who used a variety of forms of disposition after the cremation, from cemetery burial, to bringing the ashes home, to scattering. She located the subjects through radiation referrals from friends, colleagues, and students.

Research was conducted through interviews. Subjects were asked about cremations and ash disposition activities in which they had had an active role. Questions covered: the decision to cremate; decisions and negotiations with others about how to “care for and dispose of” ashes; incidents or conflicts that surprised or disturbed them; any preferences they now had for disposition of their own body; and if the cremation experience had influenced their preference. Subjects were encouraged to speak freely about the experiences and give “the whole story.”


Disposition Decisions

Disposition of Cremated Remains by Relationship of the Deceased to the Living
Relationship to the living N Intact cemetery placement Intact at home Scattered Mixed disposition Other
Father 18 2 5 9 2
Mother 12 4 1 5 2
Grandparents 13 2 4 7
Friend 10 1 3 3 2 1
Spouse/partner 7 3 3 1
Aunt/uncle 5 5
Brother 3 1 1 1
Cousin 3 3
In-laws 3 1 2
Ex-spouse/partner 2 2
Child 1 1
Client 1 1
HUMAN 78 10 17 41 8 2
DOG 9 1 5 2 1
TOTAL 87 11 22 43 8 3

People took seriously the responsibility to hold a ceremony and to do something appropriate with the cremated remains.

The author notes that other innovative funeral tasks like creating Web or roadside memorials, or making remarks at a service, can be treated as optional and can come down to a personal decision. A major difference with all of the cremation disposition and ceremony decisions is that they were not viewed as optional, and most of the time needed to be worked out in concert with others.

Some subjects in this study who did not immediately bury the remains had the same perception of closeness as did those in the U.K. study: that with cremated remains, survivors could keep their loved ones near, in their lives, in a very real sense—as opposed to the distant, symbolic encounter at a cemetery when the body is buried. Rather than just on special occasions, they could interact with the dead any time, as part of everyday life.

Ten of the 78 deceased humans were buried at a cemetery after cremation, another three were going to be buried, and three more were going to have part of the ashes buried. Some of those not yet interred were on hold until the survivors could afford the cemetery expenses.

Eleven of the 17 cremated remains brought home were in “home urns/shrines” of which three were now thought of as permanent.

In those cases where remains were in a temporary location, participants often felt uncomfortable with the arrangement—and the author opines they might have been better off if they had simply had a traditional burial and funeral. A few of the respondents found it awkward to have the ashes at home, because they had not figured out what to do with them, how to live with them, or how to display them appropriately. As one said, “It’s like his death is not over.”

About 65% of the cremations were scattered in whole or in part.

Most of the subjects were of the opinion that scattering is what is supposed to be done with cremated remains; those who had not scattered “felt compelled to explain” the reason for not doing so, even though the author points out she did not ask the question.

Nearly all—over 80%—of the respondents said they wanted to be cremated; of the six who stated they wished to be buried, five had a strong family tradition of burial and had only used cremation because of a lack of money.

Most of those who preferred cremation for themselves did not say it had anything to do with the experience of taking care of someone else’s, or the experience with the ritual. The ones who had problems during the ceremonies, however, did not feel dissuaded from choosing non-traditional disposition for themselves.

Reasons for wanting cremation for themselves were standard ones such as not being a financial burden on their survivors and preserving the environment; only a few of these subjects had a preference for what should be done with their remains after cremation.

Postmodern Rituals

When people did not have a plan or pattern to follow for a scattering ceremony, they found themselves creating one on the spot from whatever elements they could pull together. Some had to think of impromptu scattering places by thinking about their loved one’s favorite things. One family reached the scattering location and did not know what to do next, so some American Indian friends in the group—who did not have a tradition of cremation—suggested scattering in the “four directions,” so everyone went along with that. Another family decided to all wear some of their father’s clothes.

In another case, a subject reported “I said ‘I think we should go on a full moon’ and everybody said ‘OK.’”

A few key things learned from the participants about ad hoc ritualization:

  • People intuitively “get” ritual and the fact that during this special time, normal rules do not apply.

  • They were unafraid to be unconventional or even outlandish, or to stretch the definition of what is legal, such as with surreptitious dispersal of ashes.

  • The “made-up” nature of these rituals did not make them less significant to the American participants. This is in contrast to the U.K. study, where the authors had worried that the greater potential for mishaps in impromptu ceremonies could lessen their meaningfulness.

  • Mishaps such as ash “blowback” were incorporated into the event through the retelling, as though such occurrences were appropriate to newly-developed rituals.

  • Despite having to make difficult decisions, sometimes amid disagreements, participants often became closer after the ceremonies.

  • Believing in a supernatural or fateful inspiration for their actions, such as watching for “signs” about the right way to hold the ceremony. As one respondent said while trying to think of a place for scattering, “I’ll know when it’s right.”

  • People who had experienced previous cremations had learned from them: problems experienced at one cremation may be less likely to reoccur.

Additional observations

Caveats for this study are that the subjects were all volunteers, who might think differently about postdeath rituals than other people who would not participate in such a survey. Also, they were largely from a university community in California, where traditions and other ideas are different from those elsewhere, and the cremation rate has been very high for many years.

The authors note, however, that participants in this survey expressed many of the same viewpoints as those in the U.K., so there is a good likelihood that the findings may represent attitudes of the larger population—or at least of how the larger population will think once they have a similar degree of familiarity with cremation as do Californians. The time for that synchronicity may not be far off.

One difference between respondents to this survey and people in other, more tragic or unexpected, circumstances could be that there are cases where coming up with an ad hoc ritual is not what the bereaved want to do. A downside of this open ritual era is that some mourners may experience the “tyranny of choice” at a time when they really want to be allowed to follow a program, rather than have to create one. One of the main purposes of a funeral is to allow the bereaved to just put one foot in front of the other for the difficult days after a death. Postmodern may not be what such bereaved people want at all. It is important to bear in mind that different people need different things at the time of death.

This group may have been representative in other ways. Most wanted cremation for themselves but few had made any arrangements for themselves even though they had been through the experience of planning and creating the ceremonies discussed in the survey. None were reported to have viewed the experience as easy and a few reported it as quite difficult. Those who were indecisive about what to do with their loved one’s ashes, were also indecisive about what should be done with their own. They intended to be cremated for the typical reasons but testimonies in the report sounded less like commitment and, much like the subjects in the 1986 study, more like acquiescence to the path of least resistance.

This evokes an image of people drifting toward cremation, but by default—as though cremation is the new center of gravity for those who are moving away from any particularly strong ideas about funerals at all. Lacking any strong traditions or concepts to the contrary, the choice seems to be cremation.

Anyone who works in the cemetery business should watch the trend of satisfaction or lack thereof among people who take the ashes home with them. A few of the respondents expressed their discomfort at having the remains sitting around the house. There was also mention of scattering leaving no one place to go and visit.

One thing we are learning—or should be learning—is that the way people act teaches us about people. There was a time when cremation resulted in a massive trend toward creation of cemeteries. (I’ll tell that story another day). People developed cemeteries for a reason. And now we continue to see evidence that when people do not use a cemetery, they regret it.

Probably the most significant finding of this study is how naturally we as species adapt to ritual behavior. Participants noticed they were making things up as they went along, and reported doing exactly that. They noticed mishaps at their ceremonies, most likely as a result of not thinking things through or not knowing what they were doing, and they reported on the mishaps as definite mistakes that they regretted. Yet no one said the importance of the ritual was diminished because of the contrivance or the trouble. The imperfectly performed ritual did not nullify the experience.

Instead, with solemnity or laughter (the report does not tell us much about the moods), the rituals stood out as meaningful moments in their lives and appear to be viewed in retrospect as appropriate tributes to their loved ones.

Here we can learn a little more about our natural impulse to ritualize. Confronted by utterly unspecific demands of what a death requires, ritual arises organically as a healing function almost like what our body does with a cut. We can incorporate all unpredictability into our ritual experience. Face to face with the most profound test of meaning, with no guidebook or even a set of principles, we can wing it and have everything turn out basically ok.

By the way, I think this same, almost biological, sympathy with ritual processes also underlies why most people rate funeral and burial services highly. Even when things don’t go perfectly during the ceremonies, any shortcomings by the funeral home or cemetery tend not to be seen as the biggest problems that day.

We are a meaning-making species. Meaning springs out as naturally as exhaling. For people who are faced with creating ceremonies, it should be reassuring to know they that they can do it. For people who work in the funeral industry, it should be useful to remember that third parties who facilitate this natural process are the ones who will be positioned to be part of it.

With more cremation experiences, Americans will probably get more comfortable with various ritual options. As the study of funeral satisfaction showed, previous experiences with death rituals likely affects how people will think about what to do the next time.

  1. Pamela Roberts, “What Now? Cremation Without Tradition,” OMEGA – Journal of Death and Dying 62, no. 1 (February 2011): 1–30, https://doi.org/10.2190/OM.62.1.a