Meet the Pilots Who Scatter Cremains Across America

airplane cremains pilot
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

Cremation is fast becoming Americans' preference for heading to the hereafter. In the states that light the most pyres (Oregon, Nevada, New Hampshire, and Vermont), people choose incineration three times out of every four, the National Funeral Directors Association has found. Even when the ashes are interred, cremation has advantages: it's cheaper, tidier, and slightly more eco-friendly than traditional burials.

What cannot be confirmed, exactly, is what people are doing with all those ash-white cremains. Funeral directors who aren't personally tasked with disposal don't keep records on their clients' final resting places, and polls from the National Cremation Society are similarly vague about disposal methods. It got us to thinking: when the deceased is so portable as an urn of ashes, where must people be taking them? Turns out the Transportation Security Administration will let you carry ashes onto a flight. Then what?

"The macabre question is trickier than expected: how to send off your loved ones with dignity, without committing a felony."

Naturally, people are toting cremains into nature -- but that carries some major caveats. The federal Clean Water Act states that cremated remains cannot be scattered within three nautical miles of the shoreline. Aviation rules ban dumping hazardous materials over people. And the Clean Water Act put restrictions on tossing ashes into freshwater sources without proper permits. At the state level the rules can be even more restrictive depending on where you live and the local zoning rules.

Leaving ashes at sentimental sites can be ticklish as well. Thinking stadiums would make sense for dedicated fans, we asked media relations for the San Francisco Giants, New Orleans Saints, and New York Yankees, among others, about their policies about such last requests. All declined to respond. (The Chicago Cubs front-office spokesman explained in a voicemail: "It's not something we allow and don't want to encourage folks to do here." So much for your dreams of pushing up ivy.) Having been listed as a favorite site for illicit scattering in stories for Grimerica and Time, Disneyland similarly refused to comment on any undocumented ash placement at -- seriously, this is the lore -- the Haunted Mansion.

The macabre question is trickier than expected: how to send off your loved ones with dignity, without committing a felony. When in doubt, though, you can contact pilots who specialize in scattering ashes over mountains and oceans. We got a few of them talking about the science and art of flying the departed to their final resting place.

Paul Dino, New Hampshire

Take Wing Air
The first ashes I scattered were my parents' ashes. My father died many years ago, in the late ‘70s, and my mom passed away a couple years later. They wanted their remains spread over the Long Island Sound. So my sister and I mixed them together and took them up and scattered them out over the bay. I felt a great sense of closure and peace after that. That's what the business came out of.

I realized this was something you really have to put some work into to do it right. I've seen videos of pilots opening the window of their planes and just dumping the ashes out the side. I don't know if you've ever seen ashes, but they're not like a fine dust. They're gritty and they've got bits of bone in them. You dump it out the side of your plane and it's going to go back and hit the rear, it's like sandblasting your aircraft.

We actually had an engineer modify our plane to have a chute in the belly so it spreads out without hitting the plane. Without getting into all the FAA stuff about this, the plane had a hole cut in its belly already before we rigged the chute and that's just not something you can cut into any piece of avionics. You can't just hook up something like that to a plane. It has to go through a bunch of certification testing. In our case, the hole with a cover was already there so I just needed an engineer to design a simple scoop.

But to find another aircraft with that kind of cut in it again, I don't know if that's very likely. I could scatter another way, but I don't know how well it would work and this job is so important I don't want to do a poor job of it. Plus there are regulatory issues. The whole thing about scattering ashes falls under crop dusting, believe it or not. And you never want to do it in a helicopter because the physics of it will just pull those ashes right back into the cabin.

In my case, I'd do it with a co-pilot and myself. The co-pilot would be in charge of dumping the ashes and I'd be in charge of flying the plane. Mostly you're going out over the ocean, and even then you have to get the EPA involved since your cargo is considered hazardous waste. The EPA will only allow you to do it three miles out from shore and you have to send them the exact latitude and longitude. We'd give a map to the client with a Google Earth overlay so they knew exactly where the ashes were being scattered. Everyone was super thankful.

Florida Keys
Florida Keys | pisaphotography/shutterstock

Jay R. Smith, Florida

Jay R Smith Aviation
Most people don't know anything about what we do. They think you can just throw ashes anywhere. We just had an issue with a church scattering them off a pier and the ashes blew right back in their faces and the church got fined $10,000. So, they quit doing that. I don't understand why people don't understand. Maybe it's because once the funeral homes hand the remains over they're just done with you. They have no legal obligation to explain things to you.

The most important thing I can tell you is people need to be very clear about what their wishes are. There was this woman down here in a hospice with the ashes of her husband sitting on a shelf in her room. When she passed away, she wanted to be scattered with him. But when she died nobody knew what her wishes were and her husband's ashes ended up thrown in the trash. They never recovered them after they realized what had happened. So you need to specify what you want.

The big thing is that the law says you're not allowed to scatter over land. I've been doing this since 2009 and I talk to pilots who say, 'Yeah, I scattered over the lake.' Well, did they talk to the EPA? Did they make it a legal burial? Do you have permission from the local wildlife officials or the cemetery? No, of course not. You can be fined a lot of money for that, and it's illegal.

Most people don't get any referral. They find me online. They ask for land, they ask for scattering over Key West, and I don't do any of it. Three miles out in the ocean is where it's legal and that's all there is to it.

I have my own sealed system, my own little invention where I can release the ashes from outside the cargo door. Seems like a lot of pilots come up with their own methods, but I'm not sure how good all of them are. I've had people fly with me reading prayers, people doing ceremonies on the beach where they gather to salute a person's life. Mostly I'll get people who served in the military. They've had something to do with flying and when the wife calls she tells me out over the ocean is perfect.

pigeon point, california
pigeon point, california | Nithon/shutterstock

Arthur Adams, California

Wing and a Prayer Scattering Services
I got into this business about 35 years ago because someone else who was supposed to be doing the job locally wasn't actually doing the job. I don't know what he was doing with the ashes -- throwing them away, I guess, but he wasn't scattering. He was a retired coroner, too. He caused a lot of grief. I saw the story and I thought, I have an airplane, I can do that.

I've scattered in Hawaii and up in Montana and Colorado and Arizona. It can be tough to get permission. In California, there are a lot of park rangers who aren't into you doing that over their territory. But we've been able to do it at Mount Diablo up in the San Francisco Bay Area and the mountains around the lakes.

I have a tube that goes out the window. I've seen devices people have, chutes under the planes and mechanical contraptions and all those things. The big limitation is they can only do one at a time. When I do a flight, I'm taking several remains with me to keep costs down. We don't comingle, of course, but we scatter them at different times and different locations. I do maybe six, at most 10, on a trip. If we're going up to the mountains, we're going to scatter what we have in the mountains. We get requests for specific sites like the Golden Gate Bridge, but of course you can't just scatter right over the bridge like that. We haven't got any requests for Alcatraz yet.

I'm 78 and I'm in the midst of retiring. Without a doubt, I know I want to be scattered. There's a lighthouse in California that's real nice. It's a place I used to dive. It's called Pigeon Point. That's where I'm going. My wife will probably be there too. I think it's the best way to treat the Earth. You're not planting a piece of real estate that may or may not last. I remember being a kid living in Birmingham, California, which is along the San Francisco Bay, and I remember going fishing and seeing all these old grave markers used as a water break. I thought that was kind of screwy.

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Peter Rugg is a freelance writer whose stories have appeared in Complex, Vice, SB Nation, The Village Voice, SF Weekly, and Backpacker Magazine.