The popularity of cremation continues to increase in the United States, and as it does, we’re seeing more and more creative and meaningful options for cremation ash disposition. Gary Trovinger is the owner and pilot of SCATTERINGS, a Bay Area-based cremation scattering service specializing in the airborne release of cremation ashes. We spoke to Gary about this unique option and how families and individuals can secure it for themselves.
Liz: What is it that’s special about scattering a loved one’s ashes from the air?
Gary: The scattering of ashes is universally associated with cremation. An airborne release above a memorable setting gives closure, peace, and comfort to those left. For many, it’s the significance of being scattered above a memorable or scenic location; and for others, it’s the symbolic nature of the freedom of flight, and the release into the wind to begin a journey to only imagined heights or destinations.
To be scattered by air has these advantages over the limited area served by a boat, or the mixing of ashes with other ashes in a “scattering garden” at a cemetery, or the ashes being confined into a niche in the wall of a columbarium.
When faced with a loss, bringing ashes home can be a comfort, and it’s one less decision that needs to be made in a sad and stressful time. So frequently, ashes that are brought home are kept on a shelf in the hall closet and languish there for years. At some point, the ashes sitting on the shelf may no longer comfort, and in fact become a silent burden, the family knowing something needs to be done with them but not knowing what.
Liz: What are some of the reasons that a family decides to take their loved one’s ashes out of the hall closet and have them scattered?
Gary: There are a few common reasons that ashes leave the hall closet. Sometimes, widows are ready to move on and keeping their spouse’s ashes in the closet no longer seems appropriate. Sometimes, Mom passes, and when cleaning out the house the kids discover Dad’s ashes in the closet. Sometimes people are moving; sometimes they are facing an illness or their own end-of-life, and they want to get their affairs in order.
The majority of people scatter ashes shortly after a death, but occasionally it will be someone who has had the ashes for a while. Very often, they’re just ready to put that chapter behind them and move forward with the next phase of life. A lot of people don’t know what to do with the ashes, but most people recognize there is a proper way to deal with it—there should be a reverence and a respect in how those ashes are taken care of.
Gary: There are legal restrictions with regard to scattering ashes within the state of California. We work with families to obtain the required permits, and are able to accommodate a majority of requests.
The legal wording in California is: you can scatter anywhere it is not prohibited. If you do scatter on land, you need written permission from the property owner. Every disposition, whether it is burial or scattering or cremation, is accompanied by a disposition permit. If you are going to bury a casket in a cemetery, the funeral home obtains this permit and files it with the state. If you want to bring ashes home, you have a disposition permit to release to your residence. And if you want to scatter, you file a permit and specify the location, for example, “at sea,” or in which county.
There are no restrictions on the sea, as long as it’s 500 yards offshore. You can also do it on navigable waterways. Lakes and streams are excluded, however, and you can’t scatter from a bridge or a pier. Scattering above the San Francisco Bay, then, or out on the Pacific Ocean or near the Golden Gate Bridge, that’s all fairly straightforward. You just apply for a disposition permit for the place you want to scatter. If you want to scatter on land—in Yosemite or the Sierra Nevada—we typically find a property owner who controls it, or the government agency who controls the state park, and we contact them and get written permission. Once that comes to us, we submit it to the state and get the disposition permit. A lot of state parks permit scattering. They do have restrictions: don’t just scatter them off of a trail or somewhere they will be recognized; no markers, crosses, flowers; you can scatter, but it should not be an imposition, visually, upon other users of the park.
Legal requirements are such that we need to identify a place on the ground. It’s not a difficult process, but it helps to know who in the neighborhood is good at giving permission, and who is not. For instance, the National Forest Service controls a huge portion of the trees in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. They have a written policy allowing scattering, but they will not give permission to anyone to do so, because they don’t want to set precedents on using their land. So you can legally scatter there—they aren’t preventing it—but they won’t give you the letter.
What I do is a little bit unique. I don’t really walk across someone’s property and pour the ashes directly on the ground, which is how state laws are set up. In Nevada, releasing in the air is a legal disposition; but in California, this doesn’t technically exist. The question is, does California really control the air above?
Liz: Can people ride along and participate in a scattering?
Gary: Yes, families can ride along in the aircraft and participate in the release. The aircraft can accommodate four, sometimes five passengers, in addition to the pilot. Being in a small airplane is not for everyone, but for certain families it is a very appropriate memorial. We make the flight and the scattering a ceremony by providing cards memorializing the flight and rose petals to scatter following the release of the ashes. And the family can download music appropriate to the person who has passed away, and we play that music over the headset intercom as the ashes are released. It’s very moving to fly above the San Francisco skyline with Tony Bennett singing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” or to pass along the Golden Gate Bridge with Frank Sinatra crooning “My Way” or “Fly Me to the Moon.” The views, the memories, the act of releasing the ashes and the music make for a very special service.
Liz: You also offer the option to witness the scattering from the ground. What is this experience like?
Gary: This service, standing at a memorable location and observing the release, typically meets or exceeds expectations. There is tremendous closure in observing the ashes as they are released beneath the aircraft, and watching as they dissipate to become a part of the landscape, and a tip of the wing is a salute to the departed and a signal that the ashes are beginning their journey.
A common misconception with regard to scattering is that surviving family members do not have a place to visit where they can remember and reflect. In fact, a scattering location can be chosen which has far more memories, emotional attachment, and scenic beauty than the grounds of a grave-filled cemetery. We have researched and can suggest locations on the ground from which to observe a release.
Liz: Is it common for people to choose to ride along or witness the scatterings?
Gary: The majority of the scatterings we perform are unattended. We release the ashes above the requested location, and follow up with the family with a certificate and photo of the scattering location. We’re caring and compassionate in completing the task with which we’ve been entrusted.
However, as families are increasingly choosing cremation and wanting to participate in the service to release the ashes, they are more frequently on the ground observing the release, or in attendance in the aircraft.
It’s very moving to be flying above the San Francisco skyline with Tony Bennett singing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” or to be passing along the Golden Gate Bridge with Frank Sinatra crooning “My Way” or “Fly Me to the Moon.” The views, the memories, the act of releasing the ashes and the music make for a very special service.
Liz: Finally, what advice can you give our SevenPonds readers, who may be considering this special option for themselves or a loved one?
Gary: The best advice I can give is to have a discussion with your loved ones regarding what your final wishes are. The act of meeting those wishes is a huge comfort to those left behind. If you have a specific request, make sure it can be accomplished. Wanting your ashes scattered over the White House isn’t going to happen; and if that is your request, those left behind will be left unfulfilled when they are not able to accomplish your wish.
So when you’ve told your family you want your ashes scattered in a certain place, that’s only half of the equation. You’ll want to make sure it’s an acceptable place to release ashes, or your family will have to go to Plan B.
One of the most recent scatterings I did started when a woman called: her dad had passed away several years earlier, and his ashes were scattered somewhere at sea, off the coast. So when her mom passed away, she had wanted to be released somewhere where you could look at the sea. There were no specific instructions. She had mentioned Carmel and Monterey, which are absolutely spectacular places; but the daughter was from Sunnyvale, and talking with her, it became much more appropriate to scatter in the mountains around the Santa Clara Valley, overlooking the sea. This way, everybody’s wishes were met. It just takes a little dialogue: explaining what the options are, what Mom wanted, and how we can accomplish that.
Liz: Would you recommend that people who wish to have their ashes scattered put down their specific wishes in writing?
Gary: I get calls frequently from people who are in the planning phases. I tell them to have the discussion with the people who are going to be involved in this decision. For a lot of people, it’s a very difficult thing to talk about, especially if you’re not well or you’re fighting cancer; you don’t want to admit that’s where you’re going. However, the health profession is getting better at telling people to get their affairs in order. So to have that discussion is important.
People call me who are looking into their options, and they say, this is what I want. I tell them, if that’s what they want, they can read my authorization form which gives me permission to scatter ashes at a specific location, so they can have a much better idea of the location options available to them. This does two things: it gives the family members an idea of what the person’s wishes were, and it gives them a starting point to accomplish their wishes. So have a discussion, and then leave a bit of a bread crumb on how to accomplish that.
On the other side, after the person has passed away, I’ll get contacted by the family. They find me because they know that’s what Dad wanted, and they are so relieved. You can go to my website and read the testimonials, and you can see that when you accomplished exactly what the person wanted, such a burden is lifted off of you. There’s emotion and sadness, but if you did what he wanted to do—what else is there that you could have done? There’s comfort and closure. Scattering ashes isn’t for everybody, but cremation is becoming more and more prevalent, and we are moving away from visiting graves. This is something I tell people: if you scatter ashes off an iconic structure like the Golden Gate Bridge, you can be in Paris and see a picture of it, and guess what is going to come to mind.
Liz: Thanks so much for enlightening us on this special scattering option, Gary!