On Ash Scattering

17

At the risk of extending the maudlin and the macabre into a fresh work week, Paul Berge’s blog on the passing of two friends reminds me how many of us have been asked to spread ashes from airplanes. Although it’s probably lost to the trivial details of history, I wonder if Orville or Wilbur or Glenn Curtiss might have been handed an urn by a grieving relative and asked to commit the departed to the winds of eternity.

The idea has an irresistible appeal. As an alternative to putting dead people in holes, we’ve been torching them instead since the dawn of recorded history. The dust-to-dust dogma being a durable belief, spreading the ashes closes that last few arcseconds of the circle of life. People scatter from bridges, from mountain tops, into gardens, forests, oceans, lakes and rivers and into space. And from airplanes.

Solemnity isn’t a euphemism for disaster, but when dealing with human ashes, it might as well be. Just trying to distribute the remains with dignity on the ground or at sea is challenging enough, but if you want to make a real (h)ash of it, do it unprepared from an airplane. I know this because I’m remembering an indelible quote from an instructor friend of mine.

“You know those knurled knobs on the KX-170s in Seven Five Bravo? Well, Uncle Harry is gonna be in them for a long, long time,” my friend told me. Anyone who has blundered through an ash scatter gone wrong will know exactly what that means. I’m glossing the details here, but the departed Uncle Harry was a sailor and his relatives came to the flight school one day to ask if his ashes could be scattered over Long Island Sound. Sure thing, someone said. (I wasn’t involved, but would have made the same mistake.)

Just climb to 1500 feet, open the window on the 172’s pax side, and upend the urn. If you understand the principle of carburation, you’ll immediately realize that more of Uncle Harry would have made it into the Sound if the urn had simply been dumped inside the airplane. The relatives, who were blessedly sanguine about this, memorialized Harry by carrying bits of him around in their hair and clothes for a few days. I don’t know that we ever entirely got all of the ash out of that 172.

There is a better way. Maybe several better ways. I seem to recall we stopped doing ash scattering at the flight school after that, but I have done it successfully from a 172. It requires a vacuum cleaner hose duct taped to the side of the airplane terminating near where the fuselage tumbles home to the belly or at least behind the door line. You need a large funnel where the ashes are poured into the hose. It’s easy, reliable and clean. Just know that ashes are surprisingly abrasive and likely to sandblast the paint a little. There’s at least one company that provides scattering as a professional service.

When our beloved Labrador, Heigel, departed the mortal coil, I scattered his ashes from the open door of the Cub over the neighborhood from 500 feet. Remembering Uncle Harry’s unbecoming scattering, I devised a new method. A dog’s ashes are of smaller volume than those of a human and easily fit into a pint plastic container of the size nuts are sold in. I attached a nylon cord through a hole drilled in the bottom and tossed the jar out of the door. The cord snapped taut two feet under the airplane, dispensing the ashes all at once and allowing me to retrieve the jar. Sadly, I’ve lost the video I made of this.

I’ve mentioned before that ash dives are a frequent thing in skydiving. They’re just as challenging. I took part in one where the remains were just taped up in a heavy paper bag. It took some doing to open that up in free fall, but it worked. A better way was a Velcro-closed fabric bag sewn up by a rigger. Two skydivers could open it with a tug on handles provided and the ashes were released instantaneously. 

This was done in the days before the ubiquitous GoPro so someone shot it with a high-quality, helmet-mounted SLR. This produced an astonishing image. At the moment of release, there emerged a perfectly symmetrical ovate puff with a sharp point aimed heavenward. Even if you’re not religious—and I’m not—the spiritual implications were unmistakable. And also a reason to understand why ash scattering persists.    

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17 COMMENTS

  1. Scattering ashes over Long Island Sound reminds me of a story. When we picked up my father’s ashes, the funeral director warned that if we were going to scatter his ashes from a boat into Long Island Sound, to make sure to open the box and empty it completely.

    We hadn’t planned on doing so, but I was curious as to why – was there a legal or moral reason behind the warning?

    He said no, it’s just that when people get out on the boat, and it’s windy, they get worried about ashes swirling about and getting on the boat and mourners. So sometimes they decide to let the sealed box slide overboard as a solemn way to commit it to the depths.

    Now, the box seems pretty heavy, and sinks straightaway. But it’s actually close to being neutrally buoyant. And the Sound has lots of tides and currents, and the box tends to tumble along the sear floor. After several years, it sometimes washes up on shore.

    The part most people don’t realize is that, before a person is cremated, a metal coin with a coded serial number is attached to the body. This coin goes through the whole cremation process and ends up in the ashes, inside the box, ensuring the correct cremains go to the correct loved ones. So when the box shows up and is found, eventually the police find the coin and contact the appropriate funeral home.

    And they have the unfortunate task of calling the family and telling them, “Your dad just showed up.”

  2. “The dust-to-dust dogma being a durable belief…” It isn’t just a belief, it’s an actual, physical fact. However I still enjoyed the piece, Paul. So do you have any thoughts or plans for your final disposition and will it involve a vacuum cleaner hose? As for me, I’d be happy if my family scatters my remains somewhere on a high place with a breathtaking view and perhaps an airplane flying by once in a while.

  3. I offered to scatter my roommate’s dad’s ashes out of a friend’s Cub down the grass runway of a nearby airport. (He was a long-time grass strip and Cub aficionado, though when ht bought an airplane, it was a 150.) I rigged up a piece of PVC with a big funnel and a 45 degree elbow on the end, and held it out the side door with the elbow in the slip stream, below the level of the tailfeathers. Worked well enough, though it took several passes to get all of the ashes out. If there is a next time, I’ll use larger pipe.

  4. I strongly recommend practicing with some fine grained kitty litter first. (Don’t ask why I know this).

    In the end I use the paper bag method. Brown paper bag with a line taped securely to the side. Line secured in cockpit, dump bag out window, it comes up short – ripping the bag open. Line length to prevent interference with tailfeathers.

    Add flour to mix if the relatives want to see a white “puff”. Otherwise cremains are a bit neutral toned and don’t show up well.

    If scattering over water (especially Long Island Sound!) be aware of International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution From Ships, 1973, commonly known as Annex V of MARPOL (Marine Pollution) 73/78. Not sure it applies to aircraft as such. But cremains are of a size that by the convention they should be scattered 3+ miles offshore…..

  5. Back in the 1980s a local lawyer friend of mine had a sideline called Aerial Burials that I did a few flights for.

    After the usual initial disaster he came up with a piece of 3 inch PVC drain pipe with a hinged door with a latch on one end and a 3 x 1 1/2 inch reducer on the other that was removable. It had a couple of simple clamps that would attach it to the wing strut of whatever rental Cessna we were using and a string from the latch ran into the pilot side window. You’d just make sure the latch was closed, remove the reducer from the other end, pour in the ashes, replace the reducer and put a piece of duct tape over the small end, which was removed before takeoff. You’d get over whatever lake or golf course, open the window and pull the string to open the door and the airstream pressure would disburse the ashes.

    He had a little trouble from the FAA after one his first drops over a golf course. One of the neighbors saw him go over and picked some larger bone parts off the hood of his Cadillac and went off to see the FAA with a baggy. After that he had the crematorium grind the ashes twice. The FAA maintained that he needed a commercial license and a 135 certificate and he maintained that it was more like crop dusting. He offered to call them the next time he did a drop and have them violate him. They never took him up on the offer.

  6. Same principle applies to ping pong balls. No disrespect intended. In a small NE Texas town in the late 60s, I, and my CFI, distributed those ping pong balls, with a few stamped with business names, along Main St. for the local Chamber of Commerce. The aircraft was a C-150. When the a/c window was opened and the carefully made hatch slid forward the balls made a really cool clatter, but few dropped. On the second pass, IIRC, I pulled the whole bottom of the box open with great success. The string of balls whirled in the slipstream a moment then all fell to the street.
    Yes, we got a waiver from the FAA to fly at 500 feet!

  7. I used to work for a Beechcraft dealer in NY. One time an owner came in and asked to use our shop vac to clean out his plane after a ash drop failure of his friend Irving. From that day on, the vacuum was called Irving.

    • If BB King can have a guitar named Lucille, a vacuum cleaner named Irving isn’t too far a stretch. And — oh by the way — I take my vehicles to a facility across the street from a crematorium. They guys there say they can always tell when they’re “burning one.” Ash settles on the cars. NOT for me.

  8. Hello Paul,

    This is Mark Pederson from Homeward Bound Aerial Services (Ashscattering.org). My wife and I loved your blog. We would very much like to continue this dialog and have many wonderful stories on the subject.

    Well done!

    Mark & Jane Pederson
    Homeward Bound Aerial Services

  9. Dumping ashes out the window like a used cigarette?
    Somewhere an Indian on the side of the road is weeping.’

    Sadly, emotional attachment and superstitions still rule the societal day, giving a false sense of freedom and chutzpah to make something entirely personal into a public use/abuse event.

    True freedom demonstrates a much broader sense of personal responsibility.

  10. When one of the members of our skydiving community passed away, some of us built a contraption out of ABS pipe and fittings – complete with gate valves – and fastened it to the strut of a plane. It worked a treat for spreading his ashes. (I was flying the photo plane in formation.)

    The trick – whatever you’re dropping – is to get it well outside the aircraft before letting it go. One of the jumpers I flew with a smoke generator attached to his leg didn’t get his leg far enough out the door before setting it off, and the entire cabin filled up with smoke – which fortunately dissipated quickly once he left.

  11. Recalling a less-than-ideal experience air droppin my brother’s ashes over the airport that he’d fondly referred to as Littleton International in Colorado in 1977, I designed and built a device specifically for the task, when it came time to scattering my dad’s ashes over Land Between the Lakes, Kentucky in 1995. I saved the device in a box in my attic. I was in a bit of a haze at the time, having just lost my dad, and so as I read this article, I realized that I couldn’t remember exactly how the device worked, or even that much about what it looked like, but I did remember that it worked perfectly. So I’ve just made a trip to my attic and found the box containing the device and it’s triggered a lot of memories, some sad, some happy, and a bit of pride. At the risk of sounding immodest, I’m duly impressed that I was able to design and build this thing as well as I did. Dad would have been proud. If there were a market for it, I’d try to patent it. It’s a bit over 4ft long. The top section (ash chamber) is about 16in long and made of 3.5in pvc. It transitions to 2.5in pvc for about 27in of ejector tube. The top of the ash chamber has a domed pvc cap (unsecured for filling) with an approx. 5/8in hole drilled in the center through which a long, not quite snug fit 1/2in pvc tube runs all the way to the bottom of the ejector tube, where it passes through and is secured to another smaller domed cap which fits a little more snuggly (domed side in) INSIDE the end of the 2.5in pvc pipe. The 1/2in pvc and smaller domed cap act as a plunger. The plan was to remove the large dome, fill the ash chamber and cap it before take off. I had drilled a hole through the 1/2in pvc at the top (exterior) of the ash chamber’s dome and pinned it with a finishing nail (rather inelegant) to keep the plunger from accidentally opening prematurely. When I reached the drop zone, I extended the ejector tube out the window and removed the safety pin. I pushed the plunger to open the ejector end and the ashes were sucked out the end and away from the plane. Bon voyage, Pops!