Working With Families That Want To Scatter

A large percentage of families are choosing to scatter the cremated body of their deceased loved one. Many state laws now allow the family freedom to manage the disposition of the cremated body themselves. The services of the funeral director are often not requested in either arranging or performing the final disposition. Nonetheless, funeral directors will find unique challenges and opportunities in working with families that desire this form of final disposition.

The Challenges

The challenge to the funeral director in serving a scattering family is two-fold. The first challenge is within the individual funeral director. The choice of scattering is regarded by some as a bad mistake and an act of disrespect. This judgment may indeed come out of a heart of concern for the family's ultimate well-being. Nevertheless, the right of the family to chose must be honored. For them, scattering is no less an act of disrespect than any other form of disposition. The role of the funeral director, then, must be to sublimate personal judgment, and to support the family in carrying out their choice of disposition. This leads to the second challenge.

Most people have little experience when it comes to the choices and decisions required when a death occurs. Our experience has taught us the value of marking the death of a significant person with ceremony or ritual, however small or simple. We understand the importance of keeping something that holds for us memories of the deceased. We know the comfort of having a place to go which represents for us the presence of the one who has died. As funeral directors, we are in the memory business. While I do not believe it is our place to direct the choices of the family one way or the other, I do strongly believe that it is our duty to provide information and options so that the family can make the best decision for themselves. Correct information delivered in a caring and non-judgmental way will provide all the influence necessary for the family to make their decisions.

Opening the Door

Funeral directors are occasionally confronted with a person who is guarded, defensive or simply not open to discussion. I have seen it helpful in such instances to make a simple statement of intent, such as, "Mr. Jones, it is your right to make these decisions. Because of that, I feel it is my professional obligation to make sure you have all the facts. May I share with you some things that may be important to your decision?" In your own words, such a statement used at the beginning of an arrangement conference often precludes resistance from the family. By "setting an agenda" for your time with a family during the arrangement conference, a counselor can more easily accomplish the task of providing information and assisting a family in making a decision that is best for them.

If the counselor is equipped with some well-crafted questions, opening the door to exploring the possibilities rising out of the family's decision to scatter is easy. Here is an example of such a question, asked after learning of the family's intent to scatter: "Will you be doing a complete or a ceremonial scattering?"* This question is designed to be a little ambiguous, so that it creates the question in the mind of the family, "What's the difference?" This opens the door to talk about all of the things we know are so important: doing something, keeping something, having a place to go.

The essential issue around which a discussion of scattering should revolve is the fact that scattering the cremated body is an irreversible act. All the options will, in one form or another, address this issue in a positive and healthy way, and be focused on the ultimate best interests of the family.


Do something.

A vital aspect of the grieving process is involvement: doing something. A ceremony or gathering provides a way to express and absorb the loss as a family and community. People need to participate, whether formally or informally, whether in a gathering or privately.

The question, "Will you be doing a complete or ceremonial scattering?" addresses the issue of what the family (and individuals) will be doing. The word "ceremony" can have a lot of baggage with it in the minds of some people. You may want to use another word or phrase, depending upon the particular family. For instance, use "memorial scattering" rather than "ceremonial scattering." This is what crafting a question is about: the deliberate use of specific words to create an opening for exploration. The point is to enter into a discussion of what the family intends to do in honoring the deceased.

Will the family gather together at the time of the scattering? Will more than one person scatter the cremated body? Will the gathering be at the place of the scattering or somewhere else, either before or after? Will they do more than one scattering if there are relatives or friends in another part of the country? If people know the date and time the scattering will occur, they can then take that time to honor the memory of the deceased in their own way. If the family is adverse to the idea of any gathering or ceremony, perhaps suggest the importance of providing a way for other family members or friends to express their feelings.

Keep something.

The question, "Will you be doing a complete or ceremonial scattering?" also opens a discussion of keeping something that holds memories of the deceased. A "ceremonial scattering" could be defined as when not all of the cremated body is scattered, but some is retained by one or more members of the family. Alternatively, it could be explained as when portions of the cremated body will be scattered at different locations. Two popular product types that relate specifically to families that desire to scatter are scattering urns and keepsakes.

Scattering urns make scattering easy. Some allow the cremated body to be easily poured from the urn. Most families do not realize that when they scatter, there will be dust, whether there is wind or not. Biodegradable urns offer a way to place the cremated body into a natural setting without the dust. This kind of product also appeals to the environmentally concerned family.

Keepsake urns and jewelry come in several sizes and styles. If the scattering is not a "complete scattering," keepsakes can be used to contain portions of the cremated body for as many people as needed. If the cremated body was scattered from a larger urn, a keepsake of the same design can be given to individuals to remind them of the deceased. Keepsakes can be used to contain jewelry, hair or other mementos of the deceased. One way to inform families about the different product options is to display them in a way that communicates their function.

  • Display the urn next to a picture of a scattering ceremony using that urn.
  • Display a keepsake urn with a wedding ring.
  • Display keepsakes of the same design as a larger urn together with that larger urn.

Keepsake jewelry can be displayed using partial mannequins or with photographs showing someone wearing the pendant. Some vendors offer jewelry engraved with the finger print of the deceased. Some provide other accessory items such as picture frames and vases that can enhance a display and suggest other possibilities to the family.

Have a place to go.

Having a specific place to go as a touch-point of remembering -- a place to visit that has significance -- can meet an important need in the years following the loss. A poignant demonstration of this fundamental human need is seen in the makeshift memorials along highways where there has been a fatal accident. Such a memorial near where I live has been maintained by friends or family members for the last three years.

If the family will be scattering in a cemetery garden or at some location that has particular meaning, this need is met nicely. If the scattering is done at sea, perhaps a point on the coast could become that special place to go. One sea captain I know always gives the family a small nautical chart with the location of the scattering marked on it, with approximate latitude and longitude. Knowing the precise location amidst miles and miles of ocean can be comforting. Another idea is to create a monument (however great or small) in honor of the deceased in a significant location. One family I know renamed a mountain. Of course, all the maps still call it by the old name, but for that family, it is "Nate's Peak."

In Conclusion

I have seen how entering into such discussions with families can result in their desire to have the funeral director more involved in the actual service. Often it results in increased sales of merchandise. But always, building a relationship of trust and concern has effects far beyond the walls of the funeral home. These ideas and suggestions will gradually lead to increasing the bottom line on the cremation business you do, which is important. But the biggest benefit is that they will help you serve families in a conscientious and compassionate way, thereby increasing your reputation and good will in your community. This is the intangible revenue that builds a solid foundation, ensuring continued success in a challenging profession.