An Ash-Scattering Ceremony for My Grandmother
Hi. I’d like to share my personal experience of organizing an ash-scattering ceremony for my grandma. I hope my story will be helpful to you if you need to plan a funeral for your passed loved one, which is a very important and hard task.
My grandmother was a force to be reckoned with. A little Italian lady under five feet tall but fierce, you know? Like the kind of woman who was equally at home in a Catholic church pew quietly praying her rosary or at home cussing out my Grandpa in Italian so none of us would know she was cursing! She just had this passion inside that was evident in whatever she was doing, especially when it came to the way she loved her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren too. I was lucky to have 34 years with her and for her to hold my first baby, too.
Like lots of Italian grandmas, I suppose, she relished feeding us. No one ever went hungry at Grandma’s house – and she didn’t let anyone get away with eating only one helping either! She made the most delicious homemade ravioli, cavatelli, and gnocchi… and her homemade sauce was legendary. My mouth waters just thinking about it, and I’m simultaneously so happy and so sad. I guess that’s grief for you, right? Some of my earliest memories of her are from peeking through the side of the makeshift curtain she would hang in the kitchen doorway when she was cooking with garlic. She hated letting the smell permeate the whole house, so she would close herself off in there. But my goodness, I loved that smell! And I loved watching her in her element. So, I would creep toward the doorway and squint through the side of the curtain and just relish the whole scene with all five senses. I think that’s why these memories are so strong, even though I was probably only five or so at the time! Even though I was too young to put it into words back then, I could still sense that her time spent cooking was intertwined with the pride she took in feeding her family well – because, to her, I think that felt like loving us well, too. And she did, for 90 wonderful years. Up until the last few months of her life, my parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, and I would meet at her house for Sunday lunch, where she always supplied the homemade pasta and delicious dishes that left us all (happily) smelling a little like garlic for the rest of the day!
Since Grandma passed, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the best word to describe her, and I think it’s indomitable. She had persevered through tough times, especially when my Grandpa was away serving in World War II. She was stubborn. She didn’t do anything halfway. And we all felt ourselves bending to her will more than once! I think that’s part of why losing her was so hard, even though she was fortunate to live a long and healthy life. She was such a presence in our lives, a true matriarch of the family, and we all lived in her orbit.
Planning an Ash-Scattering Ceremony for Grandma
Like with most things in life (including the best Elvis Presley songs and who should win Dancing With the Stars every season!) Grandma had very specific thoughts about what she wanted after she died. She had a burial plot bought and paid for, right next to my Grandpa, and she had already pre-planned her funeral proceedings down to the dress she would wear and the hymns that would be played.
What I had never known was that she didn’t intend to actually be buried in that plot – at least not fully, anyway. Grandma chose cremation, and she left instructions for us to scatter most of her ashes afterward, setting aside a small portion of them to bury in an urn.
I think she probably never envisioned an ash-scattering ceremony. She wasn’t one for much pomp and circumstance, and she didn’t leave specifics about where she wished for us to scatter her ashes either. I think she just wanted the family to be together for it, and that was more important to her than the other details, you know? So, we were left with some decisions about how we could best honor her wishes but also do it in a way that felt worthy of her and of the impact she had on all of us.
What I Learned About Scattering a Loved One’s Ashes
I’ll be honest and say that I felt very uncomfortable with the idea of scattering Grandma’s ashes. She still felt like this whole, full presence to me, and I didn’t want her to be scattered to the wind here, there, and everywhere. I wanted to be able to visit her – all of her – at the cemetery. I didn’t say any of this out loud to my family at the time, and I don’t know if anyone else felt like that. But we all knew there was no question whether we would honor her wishes, so no one even went there as far as suggesting a different scenario.
Like a lot of people, I rely on Google for most of my information, so I started reading about ash-scattering, hoping I would begin to feel better about it, honestly. And I was pleasantly surprised to find information that, first and foremost, helped me feel more at peace with Grandma’s decision. It turns out that, culturally speaking, scattering a loved one’s cremation ash is a long-standing practice that relates back to the belief across many religious traditions that death is part of a journey. It can be viewed as a loved one’s chance to contribute to the deceased’s “journey of the departed” by preparing the body or the ashes for the journey and sending them off in love. I really liked that idea – that I could help her close out her journey in a special way and with lots of love.
So, I took the reins and researched all the ways we could do this, so I could share the options with my extended family, and we could all make a decision together. Here are a few options I learned about:
Casting of Ashes Ceremony
This is what most people typically think of when they think of scattering ashes – and definitely what I thought based on television and movies. In this simple ceremony, you release the ashes and let the wind take them. It can be done on beaches, in sports arenas, in public parks, in your own backyard, and much more. The possibilities are endless, meaning you can make this truly personal to your loved ones and the places they loved. I liked this option right away because it could be both personal and beautifully simple.
Here are two important notes I learned from my research: 1) you want to be sure not to cast ashes into the wind. They will blow back toward you instead of being carried away, and 2) It’s important to know ahead of time that cremation ashes are not uniform in size or shape. Some of them will be too heavy to be blown away, and they will fall at your feet or only be carried a short distance. (I was very glad to learn this ahead of time because I truly had no idea what to expect.)
Since Grandma wanted some ashes scattered and some buried in the cemetery, I spent a lot of time reading about trenching. This is the type of ash scattering ceremony that is the closest to traditional burial. It involves digging a shallow trench, about one foot deep, to place your loved one’s ashes into. The ashes can be placed directly into the soil, or they can be enclosed in a biodegradable urn. Most often, the trench will be covered with soil and marked in some way, possibly with a gravestone, but it could also be a new tree planted or something else meaningful to your family.
Raking Ash Ceremony
Although it didn’t feel right for my family, I had never heard of this kind of ash-scattering ceremony before, so I think it’s worth mentioning in case it strikes someone else as perfect for their loved one. This ceremony happens much as you would imagine from the name! You scatter your loved one’s ashes on top of loose soil and then rake the area to combine the ashes with the natural elements. Since they will be exposed to the elements, they will break down quickly and become part of the natural cycle. From what I read, it’s common to rake a loved one’s ashes into a flower garden or a sandy beach.
Water Ash-Scattering Ceremony
I feel like this is one I’ve seen represented in the movies many times. Families choose to scatter their loved one’s ashes over a body of water, maybe even with a ceremony on the beach or on a pier. I learned you could also take a boat to deep water and scatter your loved one’s ashes there. There are even charter boat services that perform these half-day trips and include ceremonial elements for the funeral party. (Grandma always had a fear of water, so this was not the right option for us!)
Airplane Ash-Scattering Ceremony
This was far and away the most unusual ash-scattering ceremony I read about! Scattering a loved one’s ashes by air isn’t very common. However, some families choose it when their loved ones had an affinity for travel or because they were a pilot. The planes used are typically small passenger planes, so this type of ceremony isn’t ideal if many people wish to participate in the scattering. Be aware, too, that there is less control over where the ashes fall in this type of ceremony.
What My Family Chose
Because there are so many people in my family, we knew we would have about 25 of us participating in an ash-scattering ceremony, so a “casting of ashes” felt like the most doable for us. And we knew we could make it personalized and special. Where we live, in Ohio, it’s legal to scatter ashes anywhere, and we chose the small hollow behind Grandma’s house. My Grandpa and his brother built the home when they returned from the war, and she had lived there her entire adult life. When she was at her kitchen window, she looked out on the hollow, with its elm and walnut trees shading the far side of her lawn. It was just feet away from where she harvested tomatoes and peppers from my Grandpa’s amazing garden and where I remember her hanging clothes on the line when I was a kid spending summers running through their backyard, playing tag with my sisters and cousins. The hollow felt like the perfect place.
On the day of our ceremony, we gathered together in Grandma’s backyard and shared our favorite stories and memories. We laughed and cried at the same time, and I felt at peace with Grandma’s decision and for how we were choosing to carry out her wishes. When it came time to scatter her ashes, my cousin read a poem he had written. My aunt, Grandma’s eldest child, slowly scattered her ashes using a scattering urn that the crematory had provided so that we could safely preserve a portion of her ashes for burial next to my Grandpa in a traditional urn. She carefully walked the perimeter of the hollow, allowing Grandma the opportunity to become one with the landscape she had looked out on for decades while cooking in her modest kitchen. There was no wind that day and, in peaceful stillness, her ashes landed gently.
It was beautiful. It was heart-wrenching. It was perfect for Grandma. And I swear I smelled a little garlic in the air.