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Scattering Ashes at Sea: 10 Common Questions Answered

Ashes Ceremony in Thailand (Photo: Bignai/Shutterstock)
Ashes Ceremony in Thailand (Photo: Bignai/Shutterstock)

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Some people so enjoy cruising, or love the ocean so much, that they want their ashes scattered at sea from a cruise ship when they pass. For their heirs who need to accomplish this task, there are important things to keep in mind. The process may not be as simple as you think, but it is possible to scatter ashes from most cruise ships in a simple and dignified manner. Here are the answers to 10 common questions you may be asking.

Updated October 2, 2018

Do I need permission from the cruise line to scatter ashes at sea?

Yes. Because cruise lines have strict rules prohibiting throwing anything overboard during a cruise, they must be involved in the process. Reach out to the cruise line's customer service department prior to your sailing for specific guidelines and the name of someone to contact for help with the arrangements. Often, you may be directed to check in with Guest Services upon boarding to set a date and time.

May we hold a service in the ship's chapel before we scatter ashes?

Many cruise lines no longer employ or host clergy on non-holiday cruises, typically holding religious services only when clergy members are passengers onboard and volunteer to host them. That means that unless a clergy member is traveling with you, in most cases, don't hope for a religious funeral service. Use of any specific venue onboard, including a chapel, if the ship has one, would need to be arranged in advance with Guest Services.

Is there a charge for holding a funeral service on a cruise ship?

There is no charge for scattering ashes from a cruise ship, but it is possible that you might be charged for use of a venue if you choose to hold a service or gathering prior to the scattering.

What's the difference between a burial at sea and spreading ashes at sea?

The terms may be used interchangeably. "Burial at sea" generally refers to the memorial disposal of remains in the sea, whether through scattering ashes, burial in a casket or any other means. It can refer to the process taking place from a boat, ship, surfboard or any other watercraft. It may also refer to ashes scattered into the sea from shore or off a bridge. Cruise ship sea burials are always of cremated remains.

Do I need a special container for the ashes?

While the word "scattering" evokes a particular image, cremated remains buried at sea from a cruise ship will generally be dropped into the sea in a container. The container, or urn, should be biodegradable and sealed with nontoxic glue.

There are a variety of containers that are made specifically for this purpose, including some made from salt, sand or paper. Some are designed to sink and slowly dissolve to disperse the ashes once the container settles on the seafloor. Others are designed to float on the surface before slowly dissolving or sinking. These containers can be purchased online or through your crematorium or funeral home.

Will my family have privacy when we scatter the ashes of our loved one?

You will be accompanied by at least one crew member, often an environmental officer, and taken to a quiet spot for the scattering. While every effort is made to afford your group privacy, it might not be total privacy, depending on the ship and the location used for the process.

Are we allowed to throw other things, like flowers, petals or wreaths into the water along with the ashes?

Each cruise line has its own guidelines, but generally, anything that is biodegradable should be allowed. Items like plastic or silk flowers, mylar confetti and balloons, or wreaths that contain metal or plastic would not be allowed.

Do cruise captains perform ceremonies for spreading ashes at sea?

While very few perform any type of actual ceremony, some captains choose to attend ash scattering events onboard their ships as a sign of respect. We reached out to Captain Kate McCue, Master of Celebrity Equinox, who said she attends whenever possible. Celebrity also offers something called "Cremation Creation" on its three ships that have Hollywood Hot Glass studios onboard. A small portion of your loved one's ashes are incorporated in a hand-blown glass keepsake.

Other cruise lines might provide a letter or certificate signed by the captain, as is the case onboard Carnival ships. These typically incorporate the date, time and coordinates of the burial at sea, but you might want to ask the ship's officer that accompanies you to ensure that the time and coordinates are noted if those are important to you.

How do I fly with cremated remains?

This could be the most difficult part of your loved one's journey to the sea. Each airline sets its own policies regarding transporting cremated remains. Some allow the remains in checked luggage, but that brings up the concern (and horror) for the potential of lost luggage. Others, like Southwest, only allow ashes as carry-ons, but then you are left dealing with security issues.

TSA states that the remains must pass through standard X-ray screening and that the container will not be opened by screeners. If there are any issues regarding the contents of the container, there is the possibility that it might not be permitted onboard a flight. Because of this, it is important that you travel with a copy of the death certificate when traveling by any means with cremated remains.

May I take my loved one's ashes ashore with me to scatter in port?

Cremated remains may not be taken from a cruise ship into a foreign port, as this might violate the laws of that port. Coordinating the scattering of ashes from a cruise ship with the ship's crew prevents you from breaking not only ship's rules, but possibly international laws as well.

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