March 30, 2007

"Three women in white dresses and hiking boots want to carry a pack on their back into a wilderness area. How harmful can that be?"

Can you scatter cremated remains on public lands? Does it make a difference if you want to make a business out of it. The "Ladies in White" charge $390 for the service. Does it matter if at first the state officials told you it was fine, but then they changed their mind when they heard from constituents who didn't like the idea? Do you change your position when you hear that the opposition came from Indian tribes?
The Forest Service has a version of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for private individuals who want to scatter the ashes of a loved one.

“We don’t prohibit it, but we don’t authorize it,” Mr. Schofield said. “People should do what they think is right.” But an allowed commercial enterprises require a permit, he said.

Wilderness Watch, a conservation group, opposes dissemination of human remains in wilderness areas.

“I understand wilderness is sacred ground and many people feel closer to the Creator there than they do in church,” said George Nickas, the group’s executive director. “But it’s also a place where commercial enterprise is not allowed. I think the prohibition on Ladies in White is the right thing.”
I can't tell from the article whether the Indian tribes oppose the activity because of their own ideas about the sacred quality of the land. It would be a particularly interesting question if it's one of competing religious beliefs, with the Ladies in White wanting to use the land for spiritual reasons and the tribes asserting a superior interest in preserving a religion that inheres in the land.


Janet Rae Montgomery said...

Wouldn't it be more interesting to discover if the tribe in question is going to start up its own "Native American Ladies in White" and use the idea for their own profit?

Janet Rae Montgomery said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
MadisonMan said...

I think the business aspect of it turns me off. My family has a plot at Forest Hill, and if someone wanted to scatter their ashes all over the Family Plot, well, I probably wouldn't try to stop them. But if a company started taking money to scatter ashes over my family plot -- that just sounds wrong.

hdhouse said...

The obvious loophole is the ladies in white should charge for their time meeting with the families and all work/time off public lands.

Dispersal of ashes should be free.

Ann Althouse said...

hdhouse's legal theory could be called the massage parlor theory.

lawyapalooza said...

I had an experience last year in which I saw a group of somewhat well-dressed people walking on the golf course I was playin gwith my partner and our daughter. About an hour later, we came upon a par 3 in which the flag was crooked. I didn't think much of it, until I got to the hole (6 or 7 shots later) and saw dust around the hole. We discuss how rude it was to smoke on the golf course and leave ashes on the green.

Then, I made my putt and heard a crunch. Reaching in, I saw and felt lots of chips and fragments. That's when I put 2 and 2 together, yelped, and told everyone to move to the next hole. Yuck!

Gahrie said...

How is this any different from scattering ashes offshore within territorial waters?

Unless the land in question is on an Indian reservation...who the hell cares what the Indians think?

There is no government interest in preventing people from spreading ashes in the the government should just butt the hell out.

Oligonicella said...

gahrie --

So, if someone wanted to dispose of horse carcasses, the gov should butt out? No. There are legitimate reasons for the gov to supervize (read impose rules on) public property.

I don't have an opinion one way or the other on this one at the moment, though.

Oligonicella said...

Um, if someone wanted to dispose of horse carcasses, I would want the gov to butt in.

No opinion on this particular instance at the moment.

Internet Ronin said...

We will be doing this with my dad's ashes when the snow melts. If someone notices and objects, I will offer to put him back in the urn, but I doubt that will be possible.

vnjagvet said...

These ashes aren't any different in chemical composition from typical ashes resulting from a forest fire set by lightning, are they? The latter contain the ashes of forest denizens including mammals, reptiles and others (even humans sometimes).


RogerA said...

Why am I flashing on the Coen Brothers movie, "the big lebowski?"

bill said...

How to Shit in the Woods: An Environmentally Sound Approach to a Lost Art

How much worse can burying a canister of ashes be than:

Three women in white dresses and hiking boots want to take a dump in a wilderness area,” she said. “How harmful can that be? Does it make sense for people to have land they love logged or torn up by mines, but not available to have shit buried?

AllenS said...

It's not pure ashes. I spread my girlfriend's ashes around a lot of trees that the two of us had planted. Using my hands to spread them, I noticed that there were a lot of chunks in there. There are some common surfaces out there, that should not be used.

Fen said...

What allens said. bone fragments is more accurate than ashes. Has the consistency of crushed rock, not powdered.

Bissage said...


I think Gahrie might have been saying that the ashes are de minimus, like cigarette ashes.

Ashes? Butt? Get it?

I thought it was clever and funny.

(But what the hell do I know?)

Rebecca said...

Another problem with unregulated distribution of "ashes" is that they are not just ashes. If the fragments are found in an isolated area, who is to say if that body died of natural causes or was the victim of a homicide. The bone fragments could lead to a waste of police time and energies.

Pogo said...

Another lesson in the tragedy of the commons.

A few folks scattering ashes and pieces of bone in a National park is a minor intrusion and tolerable to most people.

But once it becomes a business, and a few people threaten (and certainly hope to) vastly increase the use of public lands for disposal of remains while making a profit, then the commons becomes abused. As a result, regulations multiply.

The only other option is increasing private land ownership. In short, land that belongs to everyone in the end belongs to no one, and its stewardship consequently insufficient.

vnjagvet said...

Bone fragments or ashes.

Still the same as forest fire residue.

It happens every year in public and private forests. As it has been happening for millions of years.

What could be more "natural" than that?

Some people just have no imagination.

SteveR said...

We spread my mom's ashes on the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming. A friend of hers hired a plane and spread them from the air. We have since put a monument in a discreet place. Only people who care know, as it should be, well until now :).

Smilin' Jack said...

I can't tell from the article whether the Indian tribes oppose the activity because of their own ideas about the sacred quality of the land.

I think that's probably it. Plus it will bring them really bad luck when they build a casino there.

yetanotherjohn said...

It would be a particularly interesting question if it's one of competing religious beliefs, with the Ladies in White wanting to use the land for spiritual reasons and the tribes asserting a superior interest in preserving a religion that inheres in the land.

Which ever way the forest service went, wouldn't they be favoring one religion over another? I love the catch 22 aspect. We stop it, thus favoring the Indian religion. We allow it, thus favoring the ladies in white religion. So thread the needle so that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;" The rule would establish one religion over the other and prohibit the free exercise of the other.

Jim said...

My understanding is that many native American traditions consider the remains of deceased persons to be 'unclean', associated with bad luck, or even down right evil.

Western funerinal rites are considered crazy "corpse worshiping" by some native Americans.

This is a spritual belief that perhaps should be respected.

Joe Baby said...

As someone who ran a few public facilities, the business aspect is always more troublesome that the nuisance issue.

Most folks understand the nuisance issue, but the occasional persistent entrepreneur can't grasp why they can't run their business in the public's park.

hdhouse said...

Gahrie said..."Unless the land in question is on an Indian reservation...who the hell cares what the Indians think?"

And I guess that just about sums Gahrie up doesn't it.

And Ann:

I guess that could be the massage parlor defense...but it might be an interesting angle.....and I'll wager you dollars to doughnuts that someone thinks that through legal when push comes to shove.

I'm on the side of the forest service here and if a permit is granted in what many would consider an extreme case then wouldn't it open the door to the argument "well if they can use the park as a impromtu grave site...why can't i use it for...."?

It occurs to me that big issues sometimes pop out from what might be a small and isolate one.

RogerA said...

The forest service requires permits for many activities undertaken on forest service land; eg, mushroom picking, camping; christmas tree cutting etc. In what way would scattering ashes be different?

alkali said...

Paying someone to scatter a relative's ashes in a park seems like an odd thing to do. Wouldn't you feel the obligation to do this yourself if this is something you wanted done? And without casting aspersions on the women mentioned in the linked article, who seem perfectly sincere, wouldn't you suspect that anyone you paid to do this would just dump the ashes down the nearest storm drain?

TabithaRuth said...

I once temped in a law firm where my sole job was to enter in the descriptions of cremated remains into a database. Until then I thought ashes were, well, ashes.

Of course the lawsuit in this case was a company charging to scatter the ashes but really just tossing them in the dumpster.

hdhouse said...

Roger A:

Probably won't be different if a permit is applied for and granted...but saying that..

Now, if a permit is granted, federal lands are effectively perpetual gravesites. My cats wonder protected seashore lands now. I know they love it there, hot sand, plenty of mice in some areas.....perhaps i would like my final resting place to be there but i am not for cremation.

Another question would be why would I have to pay a permit holder for burying me on federal land if there is already a mechanism that permits it? (don't ask, don't tell) I'm not convinced that harvesting trees (removal) or other cited permit/uses actually deposit on federal land...i think they take away from. Would I not be able to gain a permit to dump there? body or otherwise?

Richard Dolan said...

Ann says that the Indian tribes' opposition would present a "particularly interesting question if it's one of competing religious beliefs." In reading this thread, I was trying to look at the various rationales for and against this kind of regulation in wilderness areas, from the perspective suggested by her question.

The reasons offered to support a ban on the Ladies in White vary widely, from moral/emotional (MM saying that the "business aspect of it turns me off"); to the aesthetic (e.g., lawyapalozza and his "Yuck!" experience on the golf course, and allens' observation that "there were a lot of chunks in there"); to a possible diversion of public resources (rebecca's concern that a discovery of bone fragments might result in "a waste of police time and energies"); to concerns about private appropriation of a public resource (several comments to the effect that this is commercial activity on public land). The commenters who think the Gov't should butt out and permit the Ladies in White to do their thing (as it more or less has) emphasize the fact that there is nothing harmful about the ashes/fragments themselves; that death is a part of the life cycle and as a result the wilderness already has lots of bone fragments, etc., from dead animals; the hypothesized externalities (e.g. waste of police resources) seem remote; and, in general, there is no reason, from a land use perspective, why the Gov't should adopt regulations here to enforce one set of sensibilities (the "Yuck!" side) over the other (the "dust returning to dust" view).

Since these are public lands, there is no dispute that the Gov't has the power to adopt appropriate regulations governing their use, and can (if it wishes) ban commercial activity. Whether it should adopt such regulations calls into question a host of competing values, as this thread shows. I don't know of any calculus that would allow anyone to say which concerns or values in the list -- moral, emotional, aesthetic, spiritual, etc. -- should trump the opposing concerns or values.

Ann's question about religious beliefs suggests that the values in play here can be of the same order as those at issue in First Amendment litigation. The difference, of course, is that in constitutional litigation, the constitutional text provides an objective touchstone (at least in theory and occasionally in practice) to resolve the choice between competing values. Absent legislation on the subject (and I don't know whether there is any), the Forest Service is pretty much on its own here.

In the circumstances, the Forest Service's "don't ask, don't tell" policy for private individuals, coupled with a requirement for any commercial activity to obtain a permit, seems exactly right. Note that the Forest Service guy did not say whether there would be any problem in granting a permit to the Ladies in White, if they ever sought one (although that would create some tension with the Forest Service's preferred view that “[w]e don’t prohibit it, but we don’t authorize it.”) So, congratulations to the Forest Service for resisting the pressures to impose a regulatory outcome, while they wait to see whether any real need for regulatory intervention is ever demonstrated.

RogerA said...

HD--at the risk of providing too much information, one COULD argue that a required permit for campers implies a permit to (ahem) "dump." This "lady in white" conundrum is clearly why lawyers earn the big bucks.

aquariid said...

A while back, feeling my mortality, I speculated about how I would like to have my body disposed of (the idea of being embalmed and put in a crappy box at a cost of thousands of dollars appalls me). I thought it might be fun to be thrown into a glacial crevasse and be spit out as a freeze dried mummy 5 or 10 thousand years later. Or dropped from a plane flying over the south pole. Of course the idea of floating in space for eternity is appealing. Or shot into the sun. As a forensic experiment it would be fun to be laid out in the open to let the elements and wild things have their way with me. The idea I thought was the best was to have my body dropped into the lava pool of an active volcano, quite neat and final. Having seen how much trouble and upset go along with settling an estate I decided to tell the concerned parties that it would be just fine with me if they donated my body to the local med school. In the end it's about the money, I'm not leaving much so why should my poor heirs be saddled with some costly, crazy stunt?

Chas S. Clifton said...

Richard Dolan's comments are basically on target, I think.

The issue of the Indian tribes is a red herring. They have no sovereign tribal rights here, but rather I suspect that they were notified because they are "stakeholders" in other Forest Service decision-making processes.

My own father, a retired Forest Service staffer, and my stepmother requested that their ashes be scattered at a particular spot on the Pike National Forest in Colorado, where he spent much of his career. (That story is here.)

First, "cremains" as the funeral industry call them are not recognizably human. Bone lumps are reduced by grinding, so what you have looks like coarse grey sand. It is, as the Ladies stated, environmentally benign. The cremains fill a box smaller than a shoebox, and you can just drop it in your day pack and go.

The issue, as the FS man stated, is "memorialization." Would people then want to erect stone cairns or other monuments (like the New Agers around Sedona, Arizona, with their sun wheels etc. on national forest land)?

If people were willing to let the trees and mountains themselves be the monuments, then there would be no problem. But undoubtedly some individuals would want to "improve" on them with plastic flowers, plaques, empty liquor bottles, and who knows what.

Karl said...

RogerA said...

Why am I flashing on the Coen Brothers movie, "the big lebowski?"

Funny, while TBL is one of my favorite films, my immediate thought upon reading 'Ladies in White' was the Coen's "O' Brother Where Art Thou".

Mickey said...

My opinion on this story is that there should be (?another) a law that requires someone making money off my forests... a permit.
Wait till the ladies in black(arab) hear about this.

Cedarford said...

I get the objection of Wilderness Society on a philosophical basis - just trying to keep commercial activity out, but in real life practical terms - the environmental impact of a few pounds - or if they are energetic - thousands of human ashes constituting a few tons - is negligable and likely a plus as the ash and bone meal become nutrients.
The many hundreds of square miles of national park at issue contain hundreds of millions of cubic yards of soil. One cubic yard of cremated ashes is almost 1000 human remains and would keep the 3 lady backpackers busy hiking in for months.

No impact whatsover as long as rangers in "don't ask, don't tell" point out a few environmentally sensitive areas like springs or wetlands with delicate soil pH balances they should avoid.
Their hiking activity is actually more environmentally disruptive than the ash scattering. And parks do inform hikers how to avoid undue damage.

As for the Indians, and how a few activists lay out their crap about the "sacred land" and purity of spirit of "the Earth Mother" and veto power over any park activity as self-annointed stewards of the environment?
Yeah right. Butt out.
They can do some cleanup of the sacred soil of their reservations 1st, for starters, beginning with all the rusting dumped autos, appiances littering their landscapes. Then find out what their past "stewards" did with all the mammouths, sloths, sabre-toothed cats that lingered in the shadow of their casinos 10,000 years ago.

RogerA said...

Cedarford: I see you have lived on or near the rez!

JohnAnnArbor said...

Some Indian tribes claim the whole moon as sacred and objected when astronomer Gene Shoemaker was (partly) buried on the moon. I don't have the reference offhand.

And, aquariid, be advised tha one of your options: "As a forensic experiment it would be fun to be laid out in the open to let the elements and wild things have their way with me."

It's possible. See this facility in Tennessee. Note the "donation" link.

Cedarford said...

Though I always did wonder as medical technology advances what happens to unnatural parts with respect to "cremains". Amalgam fillings, gold teeth, metal pins, titanium hip ball joints...pacemakers, ear implants...

A separate urn with the metal & ceramic parts?

I suppose they are discarded by funeral directors...ummm...except for the nice gold necklace the director's wife gets every once and a while.

One alternative I've heard of that is interesting is that there is a company that will take cremains, extract the carbon from the ashes, and make 1-2 artificial blue diamonds for around 8-10,000 dollars.

Fen said...

As for the Indians, and how a few activists lay out their crap about the "sacred land" and purity of spirit of "the Earth Mother" and veto power over any park activity as self-annointed stewards of the environment?

Oh, it gets even worse. I know a grad student who did her paper on an indian tribe and their "sacred" burial ground. Turns out, the tribe had been relocated, and the Elders just carried the mythology along to the new site. Her research was designated "classified" and stowed away somewhere.

Chas S. Clifton said...

Mickey, the Ladies in White have no objection to getting a permit. People carrying out commercial activities, such as hunting guides or survival-school instructors, are indeed required to have permits. That's old news.

Chas S. Clifton said...

Cedarford, when you have someone cremated, you are asked about artificial hips, etc. (My father had an artificial hip joint.) Those, as I understand, are not pulverized but just go into the trash.

Galvanized said...
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RogerA said...

Dave's post answers a lot of questions I had about dave

Galvanized said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Galvanized said...

One would think that, given that the deceased's families understand that their loved ones' final resting places cannot be commemorated/protected in any way, these ladies could be free to scatter in public wilderness areas. Other activities are performed in wilderness -- camping, fishing, hiking. So a wild animal can die and decompose openly in a public forest, but ashes are not allowed to be spread as would dust when a person sneezes, or dumping ashes from a grill, or a pet voiding itself? The sacredness/spirituality of the ceremony and the remains belongs to those who have lost and who preside over them, not to those observing it. I think people object to it because the women make kind of good money doing it, and they may find that aspect reprehensible and don't admit it.

Bissage said...

When I die,

I want to be stuffed,

with crabmeat,

and served to my friends.

Synova said...

My cousin *did* donate himself to the University. He had some interesting medical issues and he always wanted to do that and arranged it ahead of time. I'm not sure if the University will return any of him to his family or not. I should ask my mother.

And I do think that making a business out of scattering ashes is different from a family going to scatter them. The Ladies can probably find a beautiful bit of private property with a lovely view and pay the landowner. Problem solved.

But I do agree with the person who asked why anyone would *want* this service and who asked why anyone would trust someone to actually scatter the ashes at all or where they said they would.

Several years ago there was actually a case, near where I lived in California at the time, where a service took money to scatter ashes out in the ocean. A self-storage company discovered human ashes coming out the seams of one of their units and the police discovered that the service hadn't even bothered to dump the ashes in the ocean at all (how hard can that be?) So they were arrested for fraud.

It was several hundreds of people's ashes.

The idea that people wouldn't even bother to be present for the scattering is just... weird. But I guess there really are people who die without anyone who cares. With that thought, I suppose it's really great that someone wants to have a nice ceremony and give them something respectful at the end even if it wasn't anyone they knew. Still, if they ask around and explain themselves right, they ought to be able to find an appropriate spot on private property.

Synova said...

Ah... the objection seems to be that *after* scattering the ashes people tend to not want the land used for other purposes.

I understand that. Fargo has a big park that's located on top of a graveyard where people without families or who were unknown were buried when Fargo was on the frontier with a lot of immigrants and pioneers passing through. They have a big pavillion where they do community theatre and musicals every summer and have these art carnival sorts of events.

Some college student did research and proved that this was on a graveyard and a lot of people were really upset. I didn't see what the problem was (up North we walk all over graveyards, down here in the SW I notice graves often have little fences around them). I figure that most of those people, if they ended up there, likely didn't have a lot of joy in their lives so maybe they'd like some theater and musicals. I believe they put up a memorial stone, which I think it absolutely appropriate.

Still, I know people who think it's just terrible that people weren't every bit as upset as they were and didn't insist on stopping the use of the park.

Gahrie said...

Gahrie said..."Unless the land in question is on an Indian reservation...who the hell cares what the Indians think?"

And I guess that just about sums Gahrie up doesn't it.

Yep. I have absolutely no sympathy for identity politics. I see and treat people as individuals.

Especially Indians now days, when they are busy kicking people out of their tribes on flimsy excuses so they don't have to share the casino revenues.....

Nick said...

Has anyone gone to their Web site? The News button updates their story. Since they give 10% of their cost to help preserve public lands, maybe that offsets the "yucky" commercial aspect.