Ash Scattering Done Right

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Scattering the ashes of human remains from airplanes is hardly a novel idea. Although aviation people probably think of it more often than the typical man in the street, when the survivors hunt for a way to memorialize their loved ones, airplanes just naturally come to mind. When I was instructing regularly, our flight school was asked several times to perform this delicate service. What I remember of one attempt—ashes swirling back into the cockpit through open windows and six inches of the horizontal stab sandblasted clean of paint—caused me to politely decline further inquiries.

That's why I was interested in interviewing Marc Arnold who, as described in this podcast, has a small business offering ash scattering from a Stemme high-performance glider. The service is called Ascension Scattering and there's more information and a video on it here.

Arnold has added forethought to what most of us who have done ash scattering have probably done ad hoc. It just doesn't work to open up the window of a 152 or a 172 and toss the ashes out. He's developed a technique involving a rapid disbursement of ashes that have been purposefully reduced to a finer powder into a robust thermal, so the ashes ascend rather than simply dispersing. He can photograph the process so the survivors get the unique opportunity of seeing the last physical vestiges of their loved one headed skyward. Whether you're religious or not, the spiritual implications are powerful. It's easy to see the attraction for pilots and their families.

Like most competitive soaring machines, Arnold's Stemme S10-VT is equipped with internal datalogging equipment that can track position, altitude and other variables and if the family is interested, this data can be presented along with the video of the scattering. What I most like about Arnold's service is that it offers a professional and respectful way of dispersing ash, an attractive alternative to just letting the urn accumulate dust because the family can't quite decide what to do with the ashes or how.

The emotional effect of ash scattering can be surprisingly intense. It's different than a burial service. It's somehow more uplifting. We occasionally do scattering in skydiving, which involves two or three jumpers opening a Velcro-closed bag to release the remains. At 120 MPH, the release happens so fast that you can't see it well in freefall. Just a puff and it's gone. But I participated in one ash dive where a photographer with a fast motor drive caught the exact moment of release, capturing a pearly, flame-shaped translucent column pointed skyward. All of us who saw the photo knew the person being memorialized and were simply astonished by the emotional impact of an image that, in a way, froze our friend's entire life in a 1/500th second shutter click. I don't know about you, but that suits me better than a headstone. I suspect Marc Arnold's clients feel the same.

Comments (34)

It's a striking coincidence that you posted this today...because I'm in the process of working with a friend to do this very job for my roommate and his family. His dad died last year, and we've been planning since then to scatter his ashes down a grass runway from a Cub.(He was a pilot, and learned to fly in a Cub at a grass strip.)

I've known for quite some time that just opening the window and tossing the ashes out. I've been thinking in terms of having a local A&P temporarily attach a box near the tailwheel, opened by a line from the cockpit. We'd make a slow low approach and open the box just over the threshold. This should keep the ash behind the aircraft.

I like the way that Arnold does it, as you describe. Might have to see what I can learn from the podcast.

Posted by: Jay Maynard | July 16, 2012 6:28 AM    Report this comment

Did this last year for a dear friend. I made a tube out of 4" PVC, with plates front and rear that could be opened by means of strings running to the cabin windows. The device was held on to the V-struts on my plane, temporarily. While in the air, the rear plate was opened, then the front, and all went well. It was a meaningful event to me, done right, and with a certain sense of completion. The other comments about not trying to simply throw ashes out an open cabin window are 100% accurate. I was assigned the task by an FBO I did work for in my teenage years, with no instructions as to how to go about the task. The departed wound up in the cabin, on my clothes, and mostly in a Hoover. Not Recommended.

Posted by: Bill Mcclure | July 16, 2012 7:43 AM    Report this comment

Another version of this that I saw used but did not use myself is a standard vacuum cleaner hose taped to the side of a 172. The feed end had a funnel and this kept any material from swirling back into the cockpit.

But keep in mind that the ash is abrasive--maybe like medium grit blast media. So the scattering needs to be directed away from painted or fabric surfaces.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | July 16, 2012 10:36 AM    Report this comment

One word of advice... don't try this from a helicopter. What a disaster!

Posted by: Eddy Riggs | July 16, 2012 11:34 AM    Report this comment

I worked with a funeral home for one dispersal. He had a several foot tube and a long funnel (the type used for adding transmission fluid), it wasn't his first time doing it. The tube was far enough below the aircraft that we didn't have any sand-blasting effects, and I slowed the aircraft to around 70 mph. It wasn't someone I knew, and it was right after 9/11, so we had to get special permission and clearance to drop the ashes over Port Townsend Bay (the person had been big into sailing--can't recall why they didn't do it by boat though).

Posted by: David Chuljian | July 16, 2012 12:03 PM    Report this comment

Scattering of cremated human remains, while treated by the FAA no differently than crop dusting, is a very special type of aerial work. It has an emotional, religious and spiritual significance. It’s nice to see operators like Marc Arnold who clearly understand the sensitive nature of the service they provide.

There many ways to physically get cremains (the funeral industry term for cremated human remains) out of an aircraft but not all are safe and even fewer are reverent and dignified.

As was mentioned previously, cremains are extremely abrasive and can easily damage aircraft. Almost without exception, someone’s first attempt will go badly, often horribly so. Just mentioning “ash scattering” at your local airport dinner will result in stories of how attempts to scatter have gone wrong.

It is also very important that operators (either professional or non-professional) understand all of the legal requirements to scatter. The regulations vary from state to state, county to county, even city to city and can be quite confusing, if not outright contradictory.

Don’t make what should be a beautiful tribute a criminal act.

There is only one chance to get the scattering right. Have a professional do it.

Kris Larson, President Professional Aerial Scattering Association

Posted by: Kris Larson | July 16, 2012 12:21 PM    Report this comment

"Professional Aerial Scattering Association"

Who knew? Not me.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | July 16, 2012 12:58 PM    Report this comment

How about a class-action suit, to get free car wash coupons, to get your dead relative off my car! Just kidding, from an immortal spirit!

Posted by: Ron Brown | July 16, 2012 12:58 PM    Report this comment

I agree, I have always felt a park for the living is preferable over a courtyard of headstones and corpses. Let the children play.

Certain vulnerable, superstitious or naive loved ones will contribute to odd remembrances like this enterprising operation can fulfill. I don't know where this silly idea came from, where the ash of bone is held in higher regard than a memory of love between two people, but it continues nonetheless. (Hey, is that smoke from a fire or Dad, again?!) I don't begrudge this fellow for running an enterprising, money-making aviation related operation, but it's not something I would do.

I know of a very good portrait artist who will mix the bone ash into her palette medium and paint whatever is requested, without fee, for the bereaved. So much less messy than having it blow around and maybe land on someones outdoor lunch in Paris. In a portrait, the entire urn contents is kept local above the fireplace, to forever be cursed or adored by all who view it.

Posted by: Dave Miller | July 16, 2012 1:21 PM    Report this comment

"Who knew? Not me."

Just Google it Paul.

Posted by: Kris Larson | July 16, 2012 3:15 PM    Report this comment

I have scattered ashes many times from a helicopter. I use a 3" tube about 4' long with a handle and nylon bag attached to one end. I muzzle load the ashes and they drop into the bag. Twist the bag a few turns and they are safe until release. This does require a payload specialist and a door removed from a Hughes 269.

Posted by: Bill Albrecht | July 17, 2012 6:51 AM    Report this comment

Kris, that's great...but there aren't any of your members anywhere near me.

Fortunately, Minnesota has no laws about scattering ashes aside from that it be done with the permission of the person with the rights to control the remains.

After looking at the Cub we'll be using - this will be the first time I've ever flown in one - I think I'm going to use the long tube and handle approach. How far should the distal end of the tube be from the aircraft so we don't get sandblast effects? I want the Cub to be as gorgeous after the mission as it is before it.

Posted by: Jay Maynard | July 17, 2012 9:06 AM    Report this comment

Does anyone else think this is a rather bizarre ritual? How about burying your ashes under a runway light?

Posted by: Matthew Lee | July 17, 2012 2:43 PM    Report this comment

"bizarre ritual"

As opposed to say pumping the deceased full of formaldehyde and burying the body in a copper-lined concrete vault?

I'll take the scattering any day.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | July 17, 2012 4:25 PM    Report this comment

As opposed to say pumping the deceased full of formaldehyde and burying the body in a copper-lined concrete vault? >

They're both disgusting.

My issue isn't with people who think Gramps is now in a cloud or ash or in the TV, because for every freakish idea the world over there's someone listening, ready to take advantage of it and make money off of it, all in the name of providing a service. That's life, and between them. But when this offensive cloud of human remains is advertised to be and then is scattered over state parks, national parks, oceans and probably schoolyards - as if they are not 'sacred' places - yet done in the name of being a 'sacred' event, when in physical reality it is nothing more than a most offensive type of pollution, I'm amazed at their lack of consideration for all others, besides of course their paying clients.

If one's memories, feelings, photos and warmth of love isn't enough of a 'sacred' bond with your departed loved one to sustain you, it still doesn't give you the right to go public and, of all concepts, scatter their remains over public skies and lands and waterways. It's creepy, bizarre, inconsiderate and boldly humorous all at once. But what it's not is 'sacred'.

Posted by: Dave Miller | July 17, 2012 6:49 PM    Report this comment

Jay,

Don't assume there are no regulations just because you found none with the state. Counties, cities, water districts, park districts, National Parks, BLM, and Coast Guard etc. can all have specific procedures to follow or prohibitions against scattering. At the very minimum, the laws regarding littering, trespassing and dumping apply everywhere and do apply to the scattering of cremains. Over private land (assuming that grass strip is privately owned), at the very minimum, you must have the permission of the land owner.

Of course you also have the FAA to deal with too...

Dave, your concerns have already been addressed by exactly the laws and regulations I've mentioned earlier. Many states require a license to scatter commercially and operators must adhere to all applicable laws and regulations. Most are designed to protect the public from exactly the things you object to (including taking financial advantage of clients).

Dave, if your state allows practices that you feel are "disgusting", I suggest that you contact your lawmakers and let them know. If they agree, have them propose laws to limit those practices.

While you may find Death Rituals "creepy", "bizarre" and "humorous", they have been an important part of the human experience (and part of what makes us human)everywhere on earth since, at least, the beginning of recorded history. I applaud people like Marc Arnold understand that need and are happy to be of service.

Posted by: Kris Larson | July 17, 2012 7:37 PM    Report this comment

Kris, your previous post - using the fear of failure or incarceration for those who would want to 'scatter' on their own, to the point of risking committing a criminal act - then to promote your business was also an example of what makes us human. It was shameless, but very human.

What makes us human does not necessarily make us right, or even likeable. Actually, what makes us human usually holds us back from what can make us better. Only humans could concoct events like aerial human remains scattering and live turkey drops from airplanes and regale such myriad psycopathy.

Cont'd.

Posted by: Dave Miller | July 18, 2012 1:36 AM    Report this comment

There are hundreds of ways to dispose of human ashes privately and personally. Instead of taking the chance this crap could end up in someone's cockpit, on a landfill, a picnic, a polluted stream or even a cowpie cookie (would the event stop being sacred then?), why not make Gramps into jewelry, a paperweight, pendant or charm, maybe cufflinks, earrings, a mirror or swirled into a snowglobe or plaque that reads 'Worlds Greatest Grandad' like the company "Ashes into Glass" lists it will do? Why, I'd bet they could even integrate him into a toy airplane for the grandkids to play with if requested. Why not start a whole new Death Ritual (and profitable business) - toys for children, jewelry for adults, control sticks for pilots, where you can lovingly grip that dearly departed for the entire flight, and so many other great ideas just waiting for that entrepreneur to manifest them, all respectfully made with ashes from ones relatives.

All of these examples including my artist friend and her portraits (and some Navajo Indians will mix a paste for you and stain it into a beautiful rug) are kept personal, intact and away from those who want no part of sharing your dump. If using the skies as a toilet doesn't bother you, all of the above should be even more inticing.

If you are using bad laws to justify using our sacred sky as your landfill to pollute, excuse me, scatter, human ashes from dead people, then I'll keep suggesting alternatives for this madness.

Posted by: Dave Miller | July 18, 2012 1:37 AM    Report this comment

Dave: Kindly butt out. This, as with everything surrounding funerals and the final disposal of the remains of a loved one, is for the departed's family and loved ones. You have a right to your opinion, but you have no right to tell someone else that they are wrong to choose to memorialize their loved one in whatever way they find appropriate to commemorate their life. The government does, but even then, the limits are designed to protect the public. You're just complaining about being grossed out.

Posted by: Jay Maynard | July 18, 2012 7:06 AM    Report this comment

"our sacred sky as your landfill to pollute"

Our sacred sky? When did it become that, Dave? And since when does a puff of ash pollute it, as opposed to my neighbor burning his leaves or dumping the average 12,000 pounds of CO2 we all do by driving and another few hundred pounds for electricity generation.

Seems to me we can, as a tolerant society, make allowance for these little rituals if they allow people to think they've closed the circle.

I seriously doubt there will be enough ash raining down to dull the fresh wax on your car.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | July 18, 2012 7:06 AM    Report this comment

Dave ... Any relation to Dennis Miller? You appear to have taken this dicussion to "a rant".

Posted by: Scott Leggat | July 18, 2012 10:24 AM    Report this comment

How about memorializing the act of scattering ashes from an aircraft by calling it a "Dave Miller"? My mom needs a "Dave Miller". I'll do a "Dave" with her in September when I'm in the requested area.

Posted by: Manny Puerta | July 18, 2012 12:06 PM    Report this comment

"Kris, your previous post - using the fear of failure or incarceration for those who would want to 'scatter' on their own, to the point of risking committing a criminal act - then to promote your business was also an example of what makes us human. It was shameless, but very human."

Dave,

My point was simply that that the scattering of cremains is far more difficult, both technically and legally, than most people realize.

I'm sorry you feel my comments were a "shameless" attempt at self promotion but the reason I mentioned my association with PASA (Professional Aerial Scattering Association) was simply to indicate that I was knowledgeable in the subject.

Actually, PASA does not directly provide scattering services at all.

Posted by: Kris Larson | July 18, 2012 12:44 PM    Report this comment

As a society, our memorialization preferences are fundamentally changing. In 1985, only 15% of American families chose cremation as part of their deathcare plan. By 2007, that number more than doubled to 34% nationwide. Today, 50% of Colorado families choose cremation and here in Boulder it exceeds 80%. Old traditions, such as in ground burial, still serve the needs of many. Yet a growing number of families are finding new ways to express their love and respect for their loved ones. Choosing a method of final disposition for loved ones' ashes provides many creative opportunities. Ascension Scattering is one option.

As Dave's comments so aptly demonstrate, people's feelings can be strong and no single path is right for everyone. Whether people are attracted to our particular service or not, they now enjoy a wider range of options to celebrate the life of their loved one than ever before. I have the pleasure of serving deeply grateful families who DO resonate with the notion of Ascension Scattering.

As a lifelong pilot, flying has provided me a spiritual and joyful connection to the sky. Performing aerial scattering for families who share that sentiment is a distinct honor.

Posted by: Marc Arnold | July 18, 2012 12:50 PM    Report this comment

Aviation has evolved to serve important specialized services ranging from aerial application to emergency medical evac, to name a few. Often, general aviation struggles to justify its value in the minds of the non-flying public. As aerial scattering grows in popularity, this delicate service will touch the hearts and minds of the public and increase people's awareness and appreciation for light aircraft. The aviation community should embrace scattering as a valuable service offering.

Onward and Upward,

Marc Arnold Aerial Tribute

Posted by: Marc Arnold | July 18, 2012 12:50 PM    Report this comment

I remember my first attempt at scattering ashes well. I too ended up with a face full of ashes. This did not deter me from trying to do better. It is an obvious physics problem. Since this was usually done down low, the cockpit was at a lower pressure inside due to the air flowing around it. I solved this by using a much longer hose, putting it out into the airstream first to get the suction going, and then vacuuming out the ash container. As for the paint on the stabilator? I never saw any difference, since it was well worn paint anyway. I did this maybe a few times and never again since. This novel approach to this burial rite looks interesting and much better for the aircraft involved.

Posted by: David Heberling | July 18, 2012 1:27 PM    Report this comment

“As aerial scattering grows in popularity, this delicate service will touch the hearts and minds of the public and increase people's awareness and appreciation for light aircraft. The aviation community should embrace scattering as a valuable service offering."

Well said Marc.

Often, people seeking aerial scattering services have had no previous exposure to General Aviation so it is to the benefit of the entire GA community that the experience be positive.

Especially given the emotionally sensitive nature of the service, all it takes is a "viral" YouTube video of a scattering gone wrong to irreparably damage the image of the industry and of General Aviation.

This is why we try to discourage pilots not experienced in the practice from attempting it on their own. Not because we’re trying to make money (again, PASA does not provide scattering services), but to protect the image of the industry and GA as a whole.

Kris Larson

Professional Aerial Scattering Association

Posted by: Kris Larson | July 18, 2012 3:04 PM    Report this comment

Apologies, fellas, if my post appeared to be a rant, it was long though, I know. The difference here is religious or spiritual awareness of death and the significance of these bodies we use and how to dispose of them when were done with them. It gets many people all riled up, and I understand that.

I had only one point to make on this subject. Through the use of some melodrama, a little humor, and a dash of incredulity, I tried, as best I could, to show that the act of taking what is essentially soot - of any amount - and publicly dispersing it into either the water, air or soil of those who do not want this in their air, water or soil is irresponsible and self-serving. There are so many other private and personal options for closure to grieving that do not involve others or the environment. Yes, it is legal. Maybe, or maybe not, it will shine a favorable light on GA. That will depend on society's consciousness of it. Time will tell.

I don't have a problem with tolerating this and other questionable actions from those who are unable to do the same for me. And it's a big sky out there. But just because it is big, and this ash probably won't be noticed doesn't give anyone the right to do it. For me, it's a measure of a person who is guided by a higher ethic than the ability to get away with something.

--My sincere condolences, Manny, in losing your Mom. You have my permission to say whatever you like about me. Many blessings to you.

Posted by: Dave Miller | July 18, 2012 4:08 PM    Report this comment

No apologies necessary, Dave. We know you are a kind and gentle soul at heart, thus your reaction was surprising indeed.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | July 18, 2012 6:56 PM    Report this comment

Let me clear up a few misconceptions:

"Ash" and "Shoot" are very poor terms to describe cremated human remains, (referred to by many as "cremains"). Cremains are sterile and almost 100% calcium phosphates and nothing like what you will find in your fireplace. There is no "ash" and what little carbon remains is in the form calcium carbonate (which can also be found in dietary supplements). When properly processed for aerial scattering, the particles are as fine as baby powder or dust.

Someone properly scattering cremains will do it such a way that it will have virtually no environmental impact and be undetectable to those on the ground... when done properly.

If done improperly, some of Dave's concerns could be valid.

Posted by: Kris Larson | July 18, 2012 7:06 PM    Report this comment

Thanks very much, Paul, for the timely, kind words. It's much appreciated.

Posted by: Dave Miller | July 18, 2012 9:41 PM    Report this comment

"But just because it is big, and this ash probably won't be noticed doesn't give anyone the right to do it." I think this incorrect. I believe I share the same right as the planet does when "IT" heaves an entire mountain top into the air (Mt. St Helen for instance). Should we now also prohibit children from blowing bubbles into the air? It is basically detergent and could harm the environment in much the same way as scattering cremains.

Posted by: Scott Leggat | July 19, 2012 8:49 AM    Report this comment

Kris, Thanks for clearing up the science and environmental aspect of this death ritual. I do feel good that, maybe other than the aircraft used, it shouldn't be harmful to anything else. I learned something.

-Scott, I feel we cannot base our 'rights' on personal concepts. When living together as we do sharing everything for our survival we must base our laws and rights with concern for all, not just events occuring in nature. Anything put in the public domain by man has to be given this scrutiny, like what Kris has claimed to be done about cremains.

Outside of the personal universe within yourself, we live in a shared, interdependent outer universe and simply put, your freedom ends where mine begins. Adjust your 'rights' accordingly. And that goes for soap bubbles, cremains, or anything else that might affect our shared space. That's just how I see it. Cheers

Posted by: Dave Miller | July 19, 2012 7:27 PM    Report this comment

You're welcome Dave.

I completely understand where the concerns you have come from. It's partially from a lack of understanding of the process and partially from the shared experiences of non-professional operators whose attempts have gone poorly.

PASA was founded to address both of those issues. We want to raise public awareness of the service (and how it can be leagally accomplished in a safe, reverent, dignified and cost-effective manner) and provide education and training for pilots on how best to provide the service.

Posted by: Kris Larson | July 23, 2012 11:40 AM    Report this comment

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