Symbolism & Significance: What does scattering ashes mean?

What is the significance of scattering ashes? What does scattering ashes symbolize? This is an important question to address, as each culture and each individual may have different ideas about the meaning of scattering ashes.

As more and more people choose cremation, the question of what to do with the ashes becomes the next major decision in a family's final arrangements. You can keep the remains in a  beautiful cremation urn, bury the ashes in a cemetery plot using a burial vault, store them in a columbarium niche, or scatter them.

Want to learn more about your options for what to do with the ashes? Read this.

In this post we'll look at the symbolism and significance of scattering cremated remains.


Religious significance

Each of the world's major religions have various takes on cremation. Islam and Judaism expressly forbid cremation, Christian theology allows for a range of views on the subject, and adherents of Hinduism and Buddhism generally prefer cremation.

For religions in which cremation is permissible, the remains are always to be treated with respect, but there is little established protocol, theology, or religious significance relating to the scattering of ashes. If your religion permits cremation, the significance of scattering ashes tends to be largely cultural (or denominational).

The notable exception is Hinduism, which has a long and honored tradition of scattering the ashes of loved ones in the Ganges river. It is believed that a Hindu's salvation (nirvana) is achieved when their  ashes are immersed in the river Ganges.

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Cultural significance

The meaning implied by scattering ashes will vary across cultures, and will often be informed or influenced by religious beliefs.

Some Christian communities connect scattering ashes with the  Genesis 3:19 idea of "for dust you are, and to dust you will return." This is where the Anglican Book of Common Prayer derives the phrase, "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust." Through cremation and the scattering of ashes, some Christians see a recognition of God's original Genesis 2:7 creation from the dust of the ground, our return to it in the natural order of things, and the hope of resurrection from the dead in Christ. In this view, scattering ashes can symbolize a submission to God's will and created order, as well as a proclamation of hope in his power to raise the dead to life in an act of re-creation.

In many first-world urban areas, scattering ashes can represent an environmental consideration regarding land conservation. When ashes are scattered, there is no land used as a burial site, so it can be a choice that helps convey the loved one's and/or family's concern for the environment.

Some cultures view the act of scattering as a way of freeing the soul or spirit. This is a familiar theme in Hindu culture, as mentioned above.

General symbolism and significance

Some general symbolism of the scattering of remains:

  • Letting go of your loved one
  • Letting go of your grief
  • Liberation or freedom
  • A picture of a "free spirit" personality
  • Freeing the loved one's soul
  • A connection to a particular place
  • Return to the earth; circle of life

Each individual can find or create a personal sense of meaning, symbolism, and significance in the act of scattering. For example, in a  Wall Street Journal article on scattering ashes, a woman named Michelle Paris describes the scattering of her husband's ashes at a windy Southern California beach. While having the wind blow the ashes back towards you (!!) can be one of the reasons people will avoid scattering entirely, Ms. Paris saw it as a final goodbye kiss from her husband.

Your own meaning or significance in the scattering of ashes will probably include several of these ideas, and that is the attraction of scattering as a disposition method.

When you cast your loved one's ashes over the earth or into the sea, you're not saying just one thing. You're letting go, but you're also creating a special place of memory. They're returning to the earth, but you're also celebrating their freedom. You're fulfilling your loved one's wishes, but also expressing and processing grief.



Because scattering does not have one simple meaning, you can do much more than simply "let go." You can also hold on and remember the love and life that you shared together.

As part of this, many families will choose to keep a small amount of remains in a  keepsake urn or cremation jewelry necklace. Or they will scatter just a small portion of the ashes while keeping the main portion in a cremation urn. You can "plant" all or part of the remains in a memorial tree, share them among family members, incorporate them into a memorial tattoo, or incorporate any one of these other creative ideas.