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Ashes to water

Water can be a peaceful final place to lay the cremated ashes of a loved one, evoking a sense of freedom and release, and offering a sense of comfort for those left behind. Small wonder it features on many people’s funeral wish list….

Scattering a loved one’s ashes in a beautiful or significant location is a pretty common occurrence these days, but it’s a recent phenomenon.

Forty years ago only about 12% of ashes were collected from crematoria, and those that were, were most likely to be kept an urn on a mantelpiece. Nowadays, the menu of options for cremated ashes is constantly growing. 

The more mainstream possibilities include being added to fertiliser to nourish a tree or plant; being made into diamonds, other forms of jewellery or ornaments; being mixed with paint or sculpted into clay to become a work of art, or being added to fireworks to blast into the sky – even into space. 

Whatever the truth of Keith Richard’s supposed inhalation of his father’s ashes, cremated ashes definitely can be mixed into ink for tattoos and, if the comments following a recent BBC website article are to be believed, railway enthusiasts’ ashes have been shovelled into a steam engine firebox, drag racing fans’ ashes packed into a parachute behind a drag car and a lazy husband’s made into an egg timer.

However, despite these creative options, being scattered at sea is still a perennial favourite for many. Two recent high-profile examples have been Chinese activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, whose ashes were scattered in the Pacific Ocean, while the ashes of rape victim campaigner Jill Saward were scattered off Nefyn Beach in Wales by her widower, Gavin Drake.

The process combines a sense of freedom, of affinity with the natural world, and peace. According to the Scattering Ashes website, which offers comprehensive advice, research suggests that those who scatter the ashes of their loved ones in this way continue to find the presence of water very comforting after the occasion.

The Cremation Act 1930 places no explicit restrictions on disposing of ashes in the UK, although some concerns come under other legislation and some owners or authorities have restrictions in place on specific locations. Many major football clubs have established memorial gardens to prevent fans’ ashes from being sprinkled on their pitches, for example.

As far as water is concerned, no licence is needed to spread ashes in UK tidal coastal water, although scattering-ashes.co.uk recommends consulting The Environment Agency’s guidelines if wanting to use a river. (The Environment Agency’s jurisdiction also extends five miles out to sea.)

The river provisos are really just basic common sense – not putting anything in the river that will not degrade and being considerate of other people.

Scattering from a boat is likely to be more private and feel more of an occasion than remaining on shore, and it will also reach less accessible places and there are boat companies across the UK offering the service. A standard package could include a bespoke route, catering, music and even overnight accommodation on board.

It is also possible to scatter from the water’s edge – although, again, being mindful of others is advised, as is paying attention to tide times. 

Scattering-ashes.co.uk suggests buying a water-soluble urn so ashes don’t get caught in the wind. The urn will also float for while before submerging, allowing the opportunity for some words or a ceremony. 

The site also recommends choosing a sandy beach and carving a shape – a heart or initials for example – in sand below the high tide line, sprinkling the ashes in and waiting until the tide washes them away.

This is a preview of a feature article.

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