Summer has come to the Northern Hemisphere. For sun lovers everywhere — particularly on the East End — that means swimming, surfing, sailing, digging for clams, building sand castles, buying new bathing suits, casting a line, stoking bonfires, playing volleyball, running or walking along the water’s edge, applying sunscreen, and scattering Grandma’s ashes. Not necessarily in that order.
Um, about that last item: scattering Grandma’s ashes?
Kathryn Harrison wrote a memoir in 2004 about her conflicted, unresolved relationship with her mother. In “The Mother Knot,” Harrison disclosed how she ultimately put her mother — as well as a plethora of mixed emotions — to rest in 2002. Harrison arranged that year (at no small cost) to have her mother’s body disinterred from the California cemetery where it had been reposing since 1985, cremated, and the ashes shipped to her daughter’s home in New York City.
“I drove east to a beach on the North Fork of Long Island, not far from our summer home,” Harrison wrote about the final trip she took with her mother’s “brick red and powdery” cremains. On a frigid winter day 10 years ago, Harrison walked along an icy beach toward a cove three breakwaters removed from a desolate parking lot before removing her shoes and socks to stand thigh-high in Long Island Sound.
“I turned the bag over and poured my mother out. The cloud of ashes hung in the surf and swirled around me, even redder now that they were wet. . . . After 10 minutes, the cloud had spread up the beach, tinting the foamy edge of the water pink and washing around the legs of two gulls. Oblivious, the birds dipped their heads in and drank.”
Despite having lived most of my life on the East End, I’d never considered that the beaches of the North and South Forks (and perhaps all beaches everywhere) are the final resting places for those who frolicked, sunbathed, and swam there before us.
“No wonder Orient has such an otherworldly ambiance,” I thought as I read “The Mother Knot” this spring. My second thought was, “Can this be legal?” (I couldn’t imagine that it was.)
Cursory research on the Internet seems to indicate that open scattering of human and pet ashes is more or less permissible in all 50 states, although some of them, most notably California, require official permits.
Intrigued, I began contacting local officials and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to discover if indeed there is a law (or ought to be a law) regarding the dispersal of human and pet ashes and/or if such disposal presents a municipal problem.
Laury Dowd, the Shelter Island town attorney, was first to weigh in on the matter: “There is no part of the Shelter Island Town Code dealing with this issue,” Dowd wrote in an e-mail. “I can’t answer for state and federal laws. Nobody has ever mentioned it to me as a problem. And it is usually done very privately so that it would be difficult to know it was done, much less enforce it.”
John Jilnicki, East Hampton’s town attorney, suggested that “the actual beaches are for the most part under the jurisdiction of the town trustees.” Jilnicki noted that East Hampton has “no local prohibitions, just whatever the [Suffolk] County Health Department has.”
Diane McNally, East Hampton’s clerk of the trustees, added that “the issue has not come before the board of trustees in the past, and therefore no determination regarding the practice has been made.”
On the North Fork, a spokeswoman for the Southold Town Trustees said the State of New York, not the individual towns, “has jurisdiction over the Sound and the bay.” In the five years she has worked for the town, the scattering of cremated remains “has not come up,” she added.
Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell concurred that Town Hall rarely, if ever, is involved in or consulted about the process. “The [town] clerk’s office tells me that there are permitting requirements at the state level which are, apparently, quite detailed,” he said. “The application requires specifying the location and some locations are off limits. The clerks do not handle such permits so they did not have lots of detail for me.”
Back over on the South Fork, Southampton Town officials also “don’t address it locally,” according to a spokeswoman.
It was Bill Fonda at the D.E.C. who put the entire matter into a perspective that appears to preclude the specter of any possible wrongdoing: “In general, the scattering of ashes would have less water quality impact than falling of (organic) leaves that fall every autumn into waterways,” he said. “As long as the ashes weren’t being scattered over a drinking water reservoir or source, D.E.C. would not regulate this activity, especially since the quantity of ash typical to this practice would be so low.”
Less environmental impact than oak leaves? Wow.
“In addition, burial at sea must be done three miles out and requires notification of the Environmental Protection Agency,” Fonda continued. “D.E.C. is not aware of any restrictions at the state level; however, there may be local restrictions. Private property or state lands/parks require permission.”
Fonda, who serves as the regional citizen-participation specialist for the D.E.C. at the State University at Stony Brook, provided guidelines from New York’s Department of State regarding the proper way to dispose of cremated remains:
“Final arrangements for cremated remains may take many forms. One option is burial of the cremated remains in a cemetery. Another option is placing the remains in an aboveground niche or columbarium. The niches usually have a solid or glass front on which the name and dates of birth and death may be engraved. Some cemeteries also have a scattering area for cremated remains. If a cemetery will be used for permanent disposition, you should first consult the cemetery’s rules and regulations to see what is or is not permitted. Another alternative is to keep the remains at home. In this case, the person keeping the remains should plan for where the remains will go after he or she dies. A third alternative is to scatter the remains at sea or on private grounds with the permission of the landowner. Scattering on public land may be prohibited or may be allowed only by written permit. You must check with the appropriate authority before scattering cremated remains.”
All of which is a fascinating contemplation for the beach this summer: When time and tide stop, as stop they must, where will you go?
A postscript: For me, there is no real deliberation. I considered Laurel and the Bayview section of Southold briefly — and Riverhead for a nanosecond — before concluding that, of course, my husband’s ashes and mine should be scattered one day long from now over the bay in Remsenburg, where we raised our son and he so loved to walk our dog, Frisky.
Ruth Murphy is a writer living in Jersey City, N.J.