Love, Honor, Cherish and Scatter?Meeting planner Michelle Paris had checked into a hotel in Monarch Beach, Calif., for a business conference. One afternoon, she was able to break away and head down to the ocean, where she opened a plastic bag and allowed a handful of ashes to blow into the wind and onto the beach.
As a wave approached, sweeping away the gray-white dust, Ms. Paris felt her emotions swell. She stood for a moment, gazing into the Pacific. Then she returned to the hotel, where a colleague looked at her quizzically and asked, “What happened? It looks like you have Ash Wednesday on your face.”
Ms. Paris was unaware that the ashes had blown her way, but the realization felt comforting. “It’s my husband,” she told her colleague. “He just kissed me goodbye.”
Her husband, Donald Mitchem, had died of a heart attack at age 42, and on that day in 2005, Ms. Paris was just beginning what would become a worldwide journey to scatter his cremated remains. Since then, Donald’s ashes have been placed in two dozen locations, including the Coliseum in Rome, outside Ernest Hemingway’s house in Cuba and under the Christmas tree at New York’s Rockefeller Center.
More Americans these days are scattering loved ones’ ashes widely, with great purpose and often without permission?an act known in the funeral industry as a “wildcat scattering.” It’s a reflection of both the marked rise in cremation and the growing desire by people to find their own ways to ritualize grief.
Before about 1980, just 4% of families were choosing cremation over burial. Now, 39% select cremation, and in the next 15 years, the percentage is expected to approach 60%, according to the Cremation Association of North America. The increase is being driven in part by cremation’s cheaper cost, and in part by the fact that fewer extended families are rooted in one specific place anymore?which means they don’t live close enough to visit a loved one’s gravesite.
“Religion used to hold the script of what you did with the dead,” says Tom Jokinen, who has turned his experiences as an apprentice undertaker into a memoir, “Curtains,” set for publication next month by Da Capo Press. “Cremation has handed the power back to the people to do what they want with the remains of their loved ones.”
Choosing to scatter the ashes, rather than preserve them in an urn or bury them in a cemetery, is also becoming more popular. The Cremation Association’s surveys indicate that about 135,000 families are now choosing to scatter ashes each year. Since the average body yields five pounds in cremated remains, that means some 338 tons of human ashes are spread around annually.
In the past decade, more than 40 companies have been created to help people scatter ashes legally on land and sea by getting permissions and permits. But most families opt for wildcat scatterings, surreptitiously spreading ashes in favorite parks, stadiums, fishing spots or wherever else feels meaningful. Many of these freelance ceremonies are videotaped and posted on YouTube and other Web sites.
Scientists agree that there is no health or environmental hazard from the spread of human ashes. “It’s mineral-based and typically, with wind and rain, will melt into the soil within days,” says John Ross, executive director of the Cremation Association.
Despite this, theme parks, sports facilities and other public facilities often discourage the scattering of ashes or decline requests, though some stadiums, typically overseas, designate certain areas where it is permitted. “A stadium is for the celebration of baseball; you don’t want to think of it as a graveyard,” says Mr. Jokinen. “If someone runs a golf course, it seems unsavory to have people golfing over the remains of dead bodies. There’s a ghostly connotation.”
A lot of people these days like the intellectual exercise of contemplating cremation. “If you ask where they want to be scattered, people usually have a good answer,” says Kelly Murtaugh of the International Scattering Society, a company in Lee’s Summit, Mo., that helps families scatter ashes. For prices starting at $595, her staffers will take ashes to a distant location?a mountaintop, a foreign country?and provide photos and DVDs of the scattering.
Michelle Paris didn’t use a professional service. Instead, she turned to friends and her own sense of adventure. She understands that some people find scattering morbid. She’s heard all the jokes. Still, she says the ash-spreading ritual has been a great gift, helping her accept her loss.
Ms. Paris, who lives in Columbia, Md., and works at the American Automobile Association, met Donald, a carpenter, on a blind date in 1987. They fell fast for each other, sharing the same offbeat sense of humor. Unable to have children, they were trying to adopt.
Then, on Feb. 7, 2004, Donald complained of indigestion and pain in his left shoulder. He had been training for a rock-climbing trip, so Ms. Paris thought his muscles were sore. She gave him a massage. That evening, he collapsed on the way to the shower. Ms. Paris gave him CPR, but by the time paramedics got him to the hospital, he had died of cardiac arrest. Through tears, Ms. Paris kissed him goodbye, whispered she loved him and began her new life as a 40-year-old widow.
Donald had spoken of his preference for cremation, and for the first year, Ms. Paris kept his ashes in a wooden urn on her television set. But then she took a cruise through Alaska with her mother, and felt overtaken by the scenery. “I thought, ‘Donald would have loved this so much?the beauty, the eagles,'” she says. “That’s when I decided: I was going to put him everywhere that’s beautiful, all the places he didn’t get to see.”
Eleven friends offered to help. If they were about to visit someplace special, Ms. Paris gave them a small plastic bag of ashes tucked inside a purple Crown Royal whisky bag. Donald’s ashes have now been spread in the African nation of Namibia, outside a beer garden in Germany and on the Walk of the Gods trail on Italy’s Amalfi Coast. “People have been so respectful,” Ms. Paris says. “It’s as if they’re taking a person somewhere, not just ashes.”
There have been some comical moments. Ms. Paris and a friend got in a horse-drawn carriage in New York and asked the driver to take them to the most picturesque spot in Central Park. When the friend explained that Ms. Paris wanted to spread her husband’s ashes, the driver said, “She didn’t kill him, did she?”
At Disneyland, Ms. Paris left some of Donald’s ashes in a Donald Duck topiary. Disney parks are thought to be popular destinations for wildcat ash-spreaders. A Disney spokeswoman says the practice is not allowed at its resorts, which are “private property.”
Ms. Paris has never sought permits. “I think Donald would appreciate that it’s slightly illegal,” she says. “What will they do? Arrest a widow?”
To get arrested, ash-scatterers usually have to do something egregious. In 2005, Chip Noteboom, then 44, and his siblings gathered to say a prayer and toss their mother’s ashes into a creek near the family home in Doylestown, Pa. But Mr. Noteboom held back some, and when his sister noticed, he said, “It’s between me and Mom.”
The next day, the family went to watch the Philadelphia Eagles play the Green Bay Packers at Lincoln Financial Field. Their mother had been a huge Eagles fan, and Mr. Noteboom had secretly promised her before she died that he’d scatter her ashes at the stadium.
As halftime was ending, he made his move, sprinting onto the field feeling “extremely nervous yet exhilarated,” as 68,000 fans cheered him on. He sprinkled the ashes, dropped to his knees, made the sign of the cross and thought to himself, “This is for you, Mom.” Mr. Noteboom was fined $100 and did 50 hours of community service as a school crossing guard. “I have no regrets,” he says.
As her stash of ashes dissipated, Ms. Paris chose a few final locations. She went to Joshua Tree National Park in California, where Donald had planned to go rock climbing. He also loved Key West, Fla., and in 2007, Ms. Paris decided she’d spread his last bits of ashes there. “It was time for me to move on,” she says.
Because Donald died so young and so suddenly, Ms. Paris believes that her ash-scattering journeys gave her the time she needed to come to terms with her loss. “It prolonged my goodbye,” she says.
It has been more than two years since she last scattered ashes, but recently, while packing to move into a new home, she came upon a Crown Royal bag with a handful of Donald’s ashes still in it. She didn’t realize she had it.
“Donald would have turned 50 in 2011,” she says, “and he always wanted to go to Paris. Maybe I’ll take him there. That might be good for me, too.”
Photo:Stephen Voss for The Wall Street Journal
Source: Wall Street Journal Online