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Ash scattering is a growing funereal service

Business keeps pace with rise in cremations

Wes Heinmiller of the Atlantis Society scattered ashes in the Pacific on May 16 during a ceremony aboard the White Light near Dana Point, Calif. His company performs about 400 scattering ceremonies a year off California and Washington. (CHRIS CARLSON/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Dwight Smith and his mother made several trips to Ireland over the years, reveling in the beauty of the Killarney lakes in the southwest corner of the country.

When Smith's mother died in August, there was no question she would be cremated -- a request she had made often -- or that her remains would be scattered near the lakes.

But Smith, of New London, Conn., said he didn't have the time or resources to make the trip now and wanted to fulfill his mother's wishes soon.

"What she doesn't want to be is in Long Island Sound," he said.

Checking with a mortician friend, he hooked up with the International Scattering Society in the Kansas City suburb of Lee's Summit, a sort of travel agency for the cremated dead that offered to handle for a fee all the paperwork and logistics required in taking his mother's remains overseas. Sometime this month, one of the society's members will scatter the ashes in Killarney, providing Smith with video or photos of the event.

The dead are not content to just sit on the mantle anymore.

As the number of cremations grow -- 32 percent of US deaths led to cremation in 2005, compared with 21 percent in 1996, according to the National Funeral Directors Association -- the demand has risen among friends and family seeking out companies and organizations that can help them deal with the remains, either fulfilling their loved one's wishes or finding a final resting place more exotic than a family urn.

Bill Metzger, for example, said he has seen a 50 percent increase in customers over the past year for his business, Final Flights, which uses his Piper Cherokee to scatter ashes above southern California sites, such as La Jolla, Big Bear, or the Catalina Islands. He said he does six to 10 scatterings a month at a cost of $300 to $500, depending on distance and fuel prices.

"When I get a call and I explain what we do, people are stunned; they didn't know something like this existed," Metzger said. "It just seemed an uplifting -- no pun intended -- happy way of doing things, as opposed to a somber scattering at sea or placing in a columbarium (crypt)."

Mark Smith, president of the Chicago-based Cremation Association of North America, said the majority of cremated remains still go home with loved ones for burial or safekeeping. But his association did a study last year that found that 21.7 percent of remains are destined to be scattered, up from 17.8 percent in 1997.

Smith said much of that growth is coming as funeral home directors increasingly offer scattering services in their funeral packages or at least broach the subject of alternative disposition of the ashes, something traditional-minded families may have never considered.

He added that some relatives choose scattering because they worry about possibly losing the remains or subsequent generations letting the ashes lie forgotten in a closet or attic.

"They realize they don't want to become custodians and caretakers for these remains for a long period of time," he said.

Arvin Starrett, a spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association, recommended customers do their homework on a proposed scattering company or rely on a funeral home's suggestions for reputable companies.

"I think the disasters of the last few years with regard to cremation, as abhorrent as they are to funeral home directors, it comes back to the trust of one's funeral director," he said, referring to the 2002 incident in which police found scores of bodies stacked at a crematorium in Noble, Ga.

The most popular scattering option is water, according to the Cremation Association's study, although land-based scattering has grown from 27 percent to 40 percent since 1997.

Wes Heinmiller, owner of the Atlantis Society, based in Newport Beach, Calif., said his company does about 400 scattering ceremonies a year off the coasts of California and Washington State. His service costs $1,000 to $1,200 per ceremony, including the cost of chartering his 67-foot yacht.