What happens to uncollected ashes?

Labelled boxes of uncollected ashes at a Bristol funeral director's premises Every funeral director has a room for uncollected ashes

With more people being cremated rather than buried after death, ash-scattering ceremonies are gaining in popularity. But what happens when it doesn't go according to plan - or if no-one collects the remains?

There is a moment in the film The Big Lebowski where the Dude (Jeff Bridges) and Walter (John Goodman) take their late friend Donny's ashes to a cliff top. Walter insists on saying "a few words", then scatters Donny's mortal remains from a coffee tin.

But prevailing winds mean that Donny, instead of ending up in the "Pacific Ocean, which he loved so well", ends up all over the Dude.

For a meaningful, solemn occasion to be unexpectedly blown off course is a real and increasing phenomenon. We want to say the right words, in the right place, at the right moment and with all the right people in attendance. But it doesn't always go according to plan.

Fireworks carrying the ashes of Hunter S Thompson explode over the top of his memorial on the Owl Farm in Woody Creek, Colorado Hunter S Thompson asked for his ashes to be scattered via firework

Adam Heath, a funeral director from Sheffield, has noticed a shift in how the bereaved treat ashes during his 30-year career.

"It used to be that everyone was scattered at the garden of remembrance [at] the crematorium," he says. Now, as fictional depictions of ash-scattering are more common, they prefer to take the ashes to a location with personal significance for the deceased. "They would like to be able to do their own thing, too."

Although some 70% of Britons will be cremated, few specify what they would like done with their remains. Those left behind have to make an educated guess.

"One minute he's your dad, then the next you've got this urn - plastic and disappointing," says Sally, of Bristol. "You want to do it poetically, like in the movies, but there's always more of it. And, in the end, you're like 'Oh, just tip him out.'"

Kevin Browne, bereavement services manager for Broxtowe Borough Council, says it is part of our national psyche to be surprised by ashes.

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"We're so British, we don't talk about death, do we? People aren't aware of the options they'll have - they haven't given it any thought at all.

"On TV you just see a token gesture [amount] being scattered - a couple of eggcupfuls. The quantity and weight seem to catch people off guard."

And that's if the ashes are even collected.

Funeral directors up and down the country have a room of unclaimed ashes. These can range from tens to hundreds of ashes, some of which date from the late 19th Century. Uncertainty about what to do with these remains is certainly a factor.

Ashes of Mahatma Gandhi's ashes scattered at sea off Durban in 2010 Gandhi's ashes - held in secret for decades by a family friend - were scattered in 2010

Ashes do not belong to anyone, in the same way as a person cannot belong to another under British law. Ashes will be returned to whoever made the funeral arrangements, not necessarily the next of kin.

Nor do funeral directors press the issue with the recently bereaved, says Heath.

"It's important, to arrange someone's funeral, to get some insight into their psyche, to get what's right for them at the time. But what they want to do with the ashes, collecting them or not, I don't want to take sides or pick a fight."

Until recently, there was scant advice for funeral directors on what to do with unclaimed ashes.

In December, the National Association of Funeral Directors published guidelines stating that unclaimed ashes must be stored for at least five years, with efforts being made to locate the rightful recipient, before a funeral company could dispose of them. This includes scattering them in a garden of remembrance or at a beauty spot - with the landowner's permission - or interring them.

Labelled boxes of uncollected ashes at a Bristol funeral director's premises Some uncollected ashes date from the 19th Century

Douglas Davies, of the Centre for Death and Life Studies at Durham University, says even Britons who are not religious want to mark a loved one's passing in a way that reflects that person's values and preferences.

"In the Christian idea, people thought you would gain a new identity in heaven. But with a decrease in this idea, this 'looking back' [at a person's past] came on - and there were the cremated remains as a symbol."

But death and human remains can have shock value, as the comedian Sacha Baron Cohen showed at last month's Oscars ceremony. Carrying an urn emblazoned with the image of the late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, he began scattering the ashes on the red carpet, claiming this to be the dying wish of the leader - who, incidentally, had portrayed himself as a film buff. Security did not take kindly to the gesture.

But fulfilling one's identity through their ashes is what many hope to do. Famously, journalist Hunter S Thompson's ashes were fired into the sky - as per his wishes - in a giant firework, paid for by his friend Johnny Depp.

Others want their ashes turned into vases or records - voice track optional - or perhaps scattered from a specially designed plane.

So the choice is yours. Or at least, it should be.

BBC Radio 4's Feed Me To The Wind is broadcast on Monday 12 March 2012 at 1100 GMT. Or listen again afterwards on BBC iPlayer.

Sacha Baron Cohen, in character as a Middle Eastern leader, spills what he claims are the ashes of former North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il on the red carpet at the 2012 Oscars ceremony (photos: AFP/Getty/Reuters) Sacha Baron Cohen - in character as a Middle Eastern dictator - played up the shock value of ashes

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  • rate this

    Comment number 118.

    I was very glad that my late mother ashes were kept as it took me a year to come to terms with her very sudden death. The ashes are now in my home and i will be having them buried in our local church. It was a great help that they were kept and i feel five years is a fair time for undertakers to keep remains.

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    My father;s usual joke was that his ashes should be put in a manila envelope and posted to HMRC.

    My mother's ashes were "strewn"--that was the word used--at the crematorium. It's a pleasant enough place.

    Personally, I don't have strong religious feelings, but there's a certain appeal in the thought of being "strewn", at high velocity, over David Cameron. Including artificial hip joint...

  • rate this

    Comment number 116.

    I think the act of keeping ashes is a bit gloomy, my next of kin are wholly expected to recreate the shake 'n' vac advert when I finally bite the dust. My final resting place will be in a hoover bag

  • rate this

    Comment number 115.

    Respect is not a right. You have to urn it :-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 114.

    @93 - gloomysunday. I think you may be mis-remembering a programme about pet cremations & how they may not be individual. For humans I'm told each cremation is individual bar minute residue.

  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    My family chose cremation because my mother& grandmother did not want to be *eaten by worms*(RE Previous article& following comments suggesting those who choose cremation are selfish) I have ashes in a keepsake box with love,curls of hair& pictures in, on my book shelf. Some ashes were spread in Ireland& some were then buried in the UK for relatives who wanted a head stone! Live and let live!

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

    @gloomysunday Utter rubbish. Crematoriums go to great lengths to make sure the family get your ashes and not the ashes of someone else. Sure a minute amount of one persons ashes may remain in the furnace and get mixed with the next person but not at all like the way you claim.

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    @person saying stop being so gloomy/be positive/TV Licence. Please don't ** on the rest of us,who feel that death needs to be talked about. It doesn't have to be gloomy &is indeed very important especially for young people.I lost my mother at 21,my grandmother 1 year later& a grandfather who now has Dementia! One can be *positive* yet still discuss the issue .Don't read if not interested!!!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    Re Trina's query re what happens to the urns, after scattering mum's ashes in the same place as dad's, on a pebbly Arran shore, I rinsed out the urn and stuck it into Asda's plastics recycling container in the carpark. With dad's a few years earlier, for whatever reason, I hadn't thought of that and just binned it. Dad had rolled about in the boot of my car for some months before we made the trip.

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    In every breath you take there are some atoms of the last breath of air that (say) Julius Caesar took, the last breath of Marilyn Monroe, the last breath of all your ancestors and everyone that ever lived . Similarly, every glass of water you drink contains atoms of every....well, you know.

    Apart from ashes, we leave plenty more behind.

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    In 1977 my grandmother was cremated in Leicester, and my parents travelled to the Whitby area to sprinkle her ashes in a favourite place in June. Several weeks later the undertakers, a large private organisation, rang up my parents and asked them when they would like to collect my grandmothers ashes. There were unable to make an answer to this distressing telephone call.

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    What "giant coffee cup"??? It was a coffee tin. Which version did you watch, or did you have too many white russians?

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    How do you find out where ashes would be kept if a cremation was done for a baby who died in hopital? do they have there own crematorium or would it go to the local one?
    My sister died at birth and was cremated, but her ashes never collected, how do i find them?

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    Personally, just dump my body on a compost heap and let the rats have a good day. When you're dead, you're dead. Who cares what happens to the remains? As long as it's not a threat to public health, all else is vanity and sentiment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    @madbrit If you listen to the broadcast, you'll learn that the ashes are toxic and will almost certainly kill any tree planted above. A tree is a great idea, but not on top of your ashes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.


    I don't know what area you are talking about ( stupid ) but I know for sure Essex do not practice that way! Every cremation is singular and it is preferred that there are not metal objects put in as these do not burn down. Please folk rest assured you do have your loved one.

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    There is one place who will turn your ashes into a diamond


  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    You absolutely get the ashes of your loved one back I work in the funeral industry and have seen many cremations the ashes you get are your loved ones ashes, end of. Also worth remembering it is illegal to split ashes or to scatter them on public land or without the landowners permission. It is also not allowed to scatter ashes in a churchyard they must be intered.

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    gloomysunday, I have wide experience of crematoriums and the disposal of ashes. I have never experienced or observed the practice you describe. That is not to say you have not, but if you have you should lodge a formal complaint to ensure the practice is discontinued.

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    A lot of people leave specific requests in their wills for the disposal of their ashes. My late father did and we respected his wishes with a quiet moment before we spread his ashes. It was an important part of the grieving process.


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