Scattering Ashes at Sea

Quaint seaside homes near a Cape beach with blue water and sand dunes


The sea and its rhythms makes up a big part of life on the Cape. The tides are a reliable constant, and the Atlantic fishing trade and tourism supports many livelihoods. For some, there is great comfort in sending a loved one’s remains to their final rest in nature, and the ocean is an obvious choice for many Bay Staters.  


Sea burial is an ancient custom practiced around the world. Sailors were often buried this way out of necessity during long voyages, and burial at sea is still an observed custom for some members of the Navy. In keeping with that tradition, John F. Kennedy, Jr.’s ashes were scattered off the shore of Martha’s Vineyard, and many other people have said goodbye to their loved ones in the same way.


How to Scatter Ashes at Sea

Sea burial, where a body is lowered into the water, is still practiced by many. But a much simpler and more flexible option is to scatter or bury cremation ashes at sea. A loved one’s ashes are easier to transport, and scattering can happen months or even years after cremation if you need time to plan. Burial of a body at sea requires the assistance of a funeral director, but an ash scattering ceremony can be completed on your own.


The rules for scattering ashes at sea are simple:

  • Ashes must be scattered three or more nautical miles from shore.
  • Prior permission is not required, but you should notify the EPA of your plans.
  • Scattering on beaches or in tributaries or fresh water, is generally not allowed without permission from the state agency governing that area.
  • Anything that goes in the water must be non-toxic and biodegradable.

You can cast the ashes to the wind to scatter them, or lower an urn directly into the water. If you choose the latter option, be sure to choose a suitable cremation urn. Urns for sea burial are usually made of untreated wood, sturdy cardboard, paper, or special types of pottery. Choosing the right material ensures that the urn will sink below the surface and become part of the ocean without harming any sea life.


A company called Eternal Reef offers another option for burial at sea. The Eternal Reef mixes cremation ashes with cement to create eco-friendly micro habitats for fish and other ocean wildlife to take shelter. Many people find comfort in the idea of returning to nature in this way, and it’s a unique way to make a long-lasting memorial that honors a life.


Off-Shore Ash Scattering Ceremonies

The actual scattering of ashes can be as simple or complex of an event as you desire. You may take your own boat out for the event, or charter one of the many professional ash-scattering boats available for hire across the Cape.


Rituals can help with healing from grief, and taking a bit of extra time to make the event special may help to bring you some closure as you say a final goodbye to your loved one. You may wish to go with a small group of family members and friends, or you might charter a larger vessel so that you can hold a more formal gathering on the water. You could pack a special lunch or gather for a commemorative dinner after the scattering takes place.


You may also wish to say a few words before scattering or casting the ashes. You could share a favorite memory of the deceased, read a passage from the Bible, or quote a poem or other favorite text. Scattering other biodegradable materials into the water as tribute is another option. Fresh cut flowers or water-soluble paper folded into a special shape could provide a unique and beautiful way to honor the moment.


There are many ways to memorialize a life, and many rituals that can help ease the pain of loss and promote healing from grief. If you need help arranging a loved one’s cremation or need guidance about what to do with their ashes, Chapman Funerals & Cremations can help. Call or visit our offices in Bridgewater, East Bridgewater, Falmouth, Harwich, Marstons Mills, Martha's Vineyard, Mashpee, Wareham, West Falmouth, or Yarmouth to speak with a member of our caring funeral staff.

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