Last week the Daily Telegraph reported that the president of the Universal Society of Hinduism had called for a special gazebo and altar-style platform to be built on the banks of Lake Windermere from which the Hindu faithful could scatter the ashes of their relatives; the support of the Environment Secretary Michael Gove and the Lake District National Park’s leaders was sought for the building of a link road “so that grieving families and friends could gather and perform the last rituals properly, respectfully and peacefully”.
Although it is a requirement of the faith that adult Hindus are cremated [reference 1], there are many regional variations on the disposal of the ashes, depending upon what is believed to be happening to the soul after death. However, the final scattering of ashes is of great importance to all Hindus, and if it is not possible to consign the ashes to the Ganges, another river or body of water is generally permissible. Consequently, it is not uncommon to come across headlines such as “[Local river] is the new Ganges” where specific permissions have been agreed with the competent authorities. So far, this includes the rivers: Soar; Derwent (Gateshead), Thames, and Wye, and possibly others.
Scattering ashes on water
Whilst Hinduism requires the cremation remains to be scattered on water, the issue of ashes scattering is of more general concern. Except where stated, the following discussion relates to the scattering by those of all faiths or none [reference 2]. The UK is one of the few countries which requires the cremation authority to give the ashes to the applicant (for the cremation) or a person nominated by them [reference 3]. This gives rise to two problems: uncollected ashes at the crematorium, and uncontrolled scattering.
The latter is exacerbated since in the UK there is no general prohibition on the disposal of ashes in rivers or lakes, although the practice may be prohibited/restricted by environmental legislation or local bylaws. Although now archived [reference 4], the Environment Agency’s leaflet, Funeral practices, spreading ashes and caring for the environment provides a clear summary to the basics of spreading ashes on the water.
The leaflet indicates that there is no evidence to suggest that either the disposal of human ashes in rivers and streams or home burials have a negative impact on the environment. However, the EA is concerned that other aspects of these practices, such as casting tributes and other objects into the water at the same time as the ashes, could harm the environment or upset other river users.
Importantly, whilst individual ceremonies to spread ashes are unlikely to pollute the water provided certain basic precautions are followed [reference 5], if the site is in regular use, the Environment Agency (in England) will need to assess it first to check there is enough water to disperse the ashes, that no one is using the water just downstream and that other river users are not going to be affected; the environmental impact will be assessed in relation to: how often the site is used; the amount of water that passes it; and if there is anything downstream such as drinking water abstraction points, weirs or locks that might be affected. The competent authorities of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland adopt a similar approach.
With regard to the River Soar, a boat hire company has been authorised to provide a customised service for the funerals, which are increasing in demand. The company has “an all weather pontoon boat which has facilities for those of the Hindu and Sikh faiths although this service is available to people of any faith or none”. The use of a boat permits a less localized distribution of ashes than from a static platform on the banks of a river or lake.
Burial at sea is controlled by the Marine Management Organisation, rather than the Environment Agency, and it is not necessary to have a licence or permission to scatter ashes at sea after a cremation.
Scattering ashes on land
Scattering ashes on land requires the permission of the landowner, and whilst some organizations have a policy which prohibits the practice, other make specific arrangements to facilitate the activity. The site Scattering Ashes is an internet source of products and services related to cremation ashes, and also provides an overview of the organizations that do, and do not permit scattering. Nevertheless, as with any web-based information, this should not be taken as representing the current, definitive position; permission should be clarified on a case-by-case basis.
In common with scattering on water, scattering on land may not be problematic for individual scatterings but it is more likely to create difficulties at popular sports venues or beauty spots which attract many who to leave the remains of their relatives there. Nevertheless, some make special provision for this. Furthermore, although while human ashes are not toxic per se, they do contain phosphate which when absorbed by the soil may affect fragile plant life.
As noted above, the scattering of remains is discouraged by the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, although strewing is permitted by the CofE. Underpinning this approach is the churches’ position on the permanence of Christian burial, reviewed here and here in relation to the Church of England.
In the Catholic Church, there is little ambiguity in the official position, which is stated in the Instruction Ad resurgendum cum Christo regarding the burial of the deceased and the conservation of the ashes in the case of cremation, 25.10.2016. In summary, this states:
- there is a preference for the bodies of the deceased to be buried in cemeteries or other sacred places ;
- there are no doctrinal objections to cremation, which is not prohibited “unless it was chosen for reasons contrary to Christian doctrine”; however, the Church prefers burial ;
- when cremation is chosen, the ashes must be laid to rest in a sacred place, that is, in a cemetery or, in certain cases, in a church or an area, which has been set aside for this purpose, and so dedicated by the competent ecclesial authority ;
- the conservation of the ashes of the departed in a domestic residence is not permitted, except in grave and exceptional cases, agreed by the Ordinary ;
- ashes may not be divided among various family members ;
- “In order that every appearance of pantheism, naturalism or nihilism be avoided, it is not permitted to scatter the ashes of the faithful departed in the air, on land, at sea or in some other way, nor may they be preserved in mementos, pieces of jewellery or other objects. These courses of action cannot be legitimised by an appeal to the sanitary, social, or economic motives that may have occasioned the choice of cremation ;
- When the deceased notoriously has requested cremation and the scattering of their ashes for reasons contrary to the Christian faith, a Christian funeral must be denied to that person according to the norms of the law .
This instruction is repeated on the website of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales. By contrast, the response to the question “What am I allowed to do with my loved one’s ashes?” on the CofE page on funerals is less detailed:
“Ashes are buried after a crematorium funeral. This page explains how your church can support you with this and offers links for more about what happens after a funeral.
If you have had a cremation service, then the final part will be burying the ashes. This might happen within a few days or weeks and the Church of England minister who took the funeral can lead a short service. You can bury the ashes in the churchyard, or use the crematorium’s Garden of Remembrance”.
Within the Church of England, issues relating to cremation ashes are generally considered by the consistory courts when a faculty is sought for their exhumation; in common with the Roman Catholic Church, permission is unlikely to be granted if they are subsequently to be scattered, divided between relatives, or held for subsequent burial. A related issue is where there has been time-limited storage of cremation ashes at the crematorium.
. Although Davender Ghai won a successful appeal in relation to open air cremation, R (Ghai v Newcastle City Council & Others)  EWCA Civ 59, he has yet to secure land and premises, and is currently seeking council funding.
. The scattering of ashes is discouraged by the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church. The “scattering” of ashes is not permitted in CofE ecclesiastical law although, but “strewing” is allowed, for which permission is normally through the incumbent. “Strewing” is pouring of the ashes directly into the ground, or directly onto the ground before immediately covering them over with earth.
. Under Regulation 30, The Cremation (England and Wales) Regulations 2008 SI 2841, after a cremation the cremation authority must give the ashes to the applicant or a person nominated for that purpose by the applicant. Similar but more prescriptive provisions apply in Scotland under sections 51 and 52, Burial and Cremation (Scotland) Act 2016.
. More recent, but less succinct, guidance is available from: the Environment Agency’s groundwater position statements (March 2018), which explain government policy on the burial of human and animal remains; government guidance Cemeteries and burials: prevent groundwater pollution (February 2018); and Cemeteries and burials: groundwater risk assessments (February 2017).
. The site should not be near any buildings, people bathing or fishing, or marinas; it should be more than 1km upstream of any abstraction of water; ashes should be spread as close to the surface of the water as possible and windy days should be avoided so that ashes do not affect people living or working nearby.
As stated in our General Terms and Conditions, at L&RUK we do not give legal or technical advice, or purport to do so. This post is for information purposes only and is not intended to be as a source of legal or technical advice – nor should it be relied upon as such.