FREE Gift Wrapping Service available until Friday 22nd November enter GIFTWRAP19 in the coupon code at the checkout Dismiss

whose ashes

Dispute over cremation ashes: who owns cremation ashes?

Dispute over who owns cremation ashes

This sad story highlights the issue of who owns the ashes of the deceased.  A young boy from Hertford was knocked down and killed by a car in a road traffic collision. After the service the boy’s mother (now separated by from the father) wanted to take the ashes to keep them in an urn at her home, the father on the other hand wanted to bury them. What the mother soon discovered that she was not entitled to collect the ashes – funeral directors answer to those who pay the bills and sign the paperwork, basically those they have the contract with. Generally this is  the next of kin but this is true of both of them.

A spokesperson for Co-operative Funeralcare said: “After cremation has taken place the ashes are taken into our care and the deceased’s details are entered into an ashes register. The deceased’s details are also clearly labelled on the container.“When the client is ready to collect the ashes, they are asked to sign the register to acknowledge receipt.”, “If there is a family dispute over who is entitled to receive the ashes we would advise those concerned to seek legal advice. Our contract is with the client and we can therefore only act on the client’s instruction.” . Okay so this sounds like a cop-out, but really what else can they say?

Ownership is not theirs to decide, and if you seek legal advice what could the lawyers say? Even if the boy was in the care of the mother (which by reading the article it would appear). If settled through the court the only people likely to win will be the lawyers. We have yet to find any case law on the subject. [See more recent posts]

The situation was only resolved when the estranged partner agreed to split the ashes. He said: “Since my boy died I’ve arranged everything with the funeral director. “I didn’t want to split him. I wanted him buried as a whole, but I agreed to split him.” The mother was thankful for this, hopefully this compromise would have happened the other way around too…

The problem is that most people reading this will be in the middle of a dispute, our advice would be try and sort things out upfront. We would ask those with the ashes not to do anything final until issues are resolved.

13 thoughts on “Dispute over cremation ashes: who owns cremation ashes?

  1. Reply
    Tania Harvey - 27th October 2019

    My husband was cremated because he wanted his ashes to be buried with me my mum dad and our daughter are buried in the grave so cremation was the only way that we can be together I offered to get his mum a piece of jewellery made from his ashes but she said she would have to think about it I give her a small amount of ashes thinking she would keep them until she died and put them in with her but instead she buried them in a grave with her 3rd husband not my husbands dad I knew nothing about this until someone who attended the gathering told me his uncle is a local councillor so I know he had a hand in all this he is registered in this grave I’m so upset about this I didn’t think a burial could take place unless the council keep the cremation papers I have the papers needed as I want him registered in the grave with me I want the ashes back so I can have him registered in his final resting place he didn’t want buried with his mother as I’ve said before he wanted to be with me is what his family done illegal as the council haven’t got the papers they need to keep when they have the grave opened not only did she bury him but had the grave opened again to move him to another location it states that a grave can’t be opened unless for legal reasons and location isn’t one of them I paid for everything I wasn’t offered any help from his family towards the cost of the funeral is this going against the law I live in Northern Ireland x

    1. Reply
      Richard Martin - 28th October 2019

      Dear Tania this all sounds very sad and complicated. It sounds as if you have not spoken to the council in question about this, that would be one avenue to pursue. It also depends on whether the ground was consecrated and the religion to determine how tricky it might be. To resolve this you are going to need proper legal advice. It seems from this you may have a case if the council didn’t follow correct procedure, however if the ashes were exhumed they would likely be returned to your mother-in-law. Who may be able to get the them reinterred correctly. Whatever the situation I would suggest it will be expensive and traumatic to get ‘resolved’ I wish you all the best.
      Regards
      Richard

  2. Reply
    Emma Chapel - 7th July 2018

    I should add to my comment below that usually there is only one Applicant (signature), which can be a shame if two people are arranging the funeral and paying for it. But if you are the person covering the costs and making the funeral plans, while other family members pay nothing or leave you with all the organising, it seems (morally – not legally) fair enough that you, as Applicant, should be the one removing the cremation ashes. It never ceases to amaze me how adult children of the deceased, in the stories you read, challenge their parent’s partner over ashes when they’ve made no effort themselves for the funeral – to them it is all about ownership and asserting their own dominance than it is about love. Who would leave their parent’s partner to make all the plans? It’s not a very loving way to behave. Undertakers see this all the time, sadly.

    1. Reply
      Richard Martin - 9th July 2018

      Dear Emma

      Thank you for this superb contribution to the site. I am sure it will help many people in this difficult situation. I thought the note about keeping the ashes at the crematorium to prevent people coming round and demanding them is great advice as is the point about keeping the crematoria informed about what is going on.

      I sense much of this is from personal experience and therefore written from one perspective, which may be entirely valid in your situation but may not be universally true for all families, this is where we differ:
      If they cannot agree and are being unreasonable, eventually remove the ashes and scatter when they’re not expecting. – this works on the assumption that person with the ashes is correct and should feel morally justified in any action they deem appropriate, which from a neutral stance point is at best dubious.
      “You could try splitting the ashes, but this is a divisive way to scatter a loved one when no doubt they’d have preferred all their loved ones there together for the scattering, – this is almost certainly not true many many families don’t think this, I know that many deceased people have expressed it in their will and actually prefer it for many reasons including a i) an effort to diffuse family tensions ii) actually wanting to be scattered at more than one location.
      This means that loved ones won’t necessarily know how much ash there will be – so you could give them a much smaller proportion of it and scatter the great majority of your loved one’s remains without them realising. – if they don’t know and you have agreed to split them, why, when you make the point this not for your sake, but for the deceased’s would you aim to not apportion equally (unless the deceased made this clear).
      But if you are the person covering the costs and making the funeral plans, while other family members pay nothing or leave you with all the organising, it seems (morally – not legally) fair enough that you, as Applicant, should be the one removing the cremation ashes. – I am not sure it does actually, fiscal ability is not a moral trump card, far from it. I have come across many families where the wealthier brother, sister or parent footed the bill – should their wishes trump that of the spouse – I would suggest not.

      Please understand my comments are not about your particular situation. Many parties can be utterly unreasonable and bullying and this often the case when as you say ‘blood’ families gang up to try and impose their will on a spouse.
      I wish you all the best with this.
      Kind regards
      Richard

      1. Reply
        Emma Chapel - 4th August 2018

        Reply to Richard Martin – yes, obviously not everyone’s circumstances are the same. In the situation I referred to, the deceased had clear instructions for his scattering but unfortunately some members of the family wanted to ignore those and do something I certainly knew he wouldn’t have liked. Additionally, those wanting to make the decision had nothing to do with the funeral arrangements because they were not interested in helping with preparations – they were wealthy (when I was truly poor) and the ones causing the most trouble had not bothered to make much contact with the deceased in several years – not even so much as a birthday card was sent to him, or phone calls made, which I always found so sad especially because he always sent cards to them and periodically called them – it was a one sided love, it seemed. So this was a case of them exerting ownership and seemingly little else. Luckily because I so loved him and made the funeral arrangements, and as I knew very well what he wanted doing with his ashes, I was in a position to ensure that for the best part this was honoured. But unfortunately because those selfish people were so demanding and aggressive I had little choice but to split them. Splitting them unevenly was a choice I made because he said what he wanted for his scattering and I wanted to honour that as much as possible. The others would have scattered either at the wrong geographical location or, worse still, completely the wrong circumstances, which is upsetting – hence my choice to do what I could and also mitigate their mistakes. But as I did not want to deprive them of their time with his ashes but to respect the time they once had together, for posterity’s sake even if they had latterly not bothered with him, I felt I had little choice but to offer them a reasonable amount. It was a hard decision – distressing, in fact, when I knew he wanted everyone to attend his favourite spot together, getting along. He told me what he imagined the event to be, years ago. I tried to persuade people of this, but their selfishness and jealousy got the better of them. They couldn’t seem to behave like reasonable grown ups, but wanted the event to suit themselves – it was not so much about him. So, sadly there was nothing more I could do but to think laterally and give him mainly what he asked for. He would have been so sad to think of the terrible way they behaved, but I did exactly as he asked me for the big day to ensure I showed my love for him. The love one has for their partner is not the same as for a parent or step-parent – you want no compromises: the scattering is not about geographical convenience and one’s work schedules, but to show your love as much as possible, with every last effort you can possibly make for them, knowing it is the last thing you can ever do for them. The loss of being able to do kind things for them, suddenly once they are gone, which you did so routinely every day when they were alive, weighs so heavily on you that all you feel you can do is give them the very best send off, respecting their requests. Anything less and you would feel you are betraying them or forgetting their words. I for one hope never to forget a single thing about the man I love – I cannot bring him back but I must hold on his words as they keep him close and preserve my memory of him. A partner’s sustained contact and love influences this, whereas other relatives’ interactions might have been more arm’s length, sporadic, and self-serving (such as is the case with the child-parent demand transaction) – hence they don’t understand the absolute necessity to follow the person’s wishes *exactly*. To love someone that much, as if their body were your own, and to watch them suffer in hospital while for the first time in your togetherness you are helpless, and to remember every moment with them and personal things they shared with you and no one else, is an intimacy no other relation could understand – the intimacy of partners. My actions were to give him every little detail of what he asked for, and to make the day so very special, as if he were still alive to witness its beauty and love. But sadly for others it was a less thoughtful day – them not even wanting to travel to his favourite place a mere three hours away, when they easily had the practical means of doing so, and not even wanting to take a day off on what was his first birthday after he passed. Advice to partners – if in doubt about others’ intentions, and you are the partner of the deceased, place the funeral payments on your credit card and ensure you sign the documents yourself – because it would simply be indescribably painful to have some less loving make the wrong decisions. Costs left me financially crippled, yes, but it was the best decision I have ever made in my life. Richard here mentions that spouses don’t always pay while more solvent family members do, causing problems – but in my experience the ones who caused all of the trouble, so thoughtlessly, were the ones who contributed nothing, not even in terms of effort for the funeral preparations (not just financially), which the undertaker said was actually often the case in such disputes. This was never to me about ownership but following what my partner wanted and making the day as beautiful as he would have wished for – which it was in the end. But sadly others tried to ruin all that, so I was forced to give them a small share so they could have their ‘pound of flesh’, as it were. It gave me a little peace to do so, to know I acted out of respect to them, respecting their memories, but it also kept them from ruining the scattering myself and others planned, which was always a risk as we didn’t want to hide from them when and where that would take place, in case they might come to their senses and attend oeaceably for his sake. The aggressive people had their share, while the peaceful loving people gave him a beautiful day – and that was as good as it got in those difficult circumstances. Sadly, even in situations of death love does not always prevail – selfishness persists in the most surprising of circumstances, requiring upsetting compromises. I hope that others might learn from my terribly upsetting experience – keep thinking laterally, and do it for the one you love.

        1. Reply
          Richard Martin - 6th August 2018

          Dear Emma
          So many families have bullies, their selfishness is not something you can control. If people are unwilling to make a small amount of effort to fulfil someone’s last wishes then only speaks volumes about them. In truth it was probably better that they were not there, even if your partner’s wish for one big happy gathering was not achieved. I suspect given the choice of them attending and you being belittled and harassed or a harmonious gathering your partner would have chosen for them to stay away.
          The fact that you choose to share the ashes was an lovely act of kindness.
          Thank you for sharing your experience.
          Kind regards
          Richard

      2. Reply
        Emma Chapel - 4th August 2018

        Richard Martin – I tried to reply but it didn’t post. You may find two posts suddenly – I hope not. Yes, everyone’s circumstances are different. I should have made mine clearer, to show how I managed to resolve a very tricky situation.

        My partner’s relations had for the best part not been very close to him – the person who caused the problems by and large hadn’t made much effort for him when he was alive: little to no birthday cards or phone calls in the last decade, when by contrast he was very conscientious (never forgot that person’s birthday and called them fairly regularly). This individual also had no mortgage and was doing very well financially, yet contributed no funds, nor even efforts, to the funeral. The undertaker advised me that this is often the way with disputes, whereby the ones who make the least effort (irrespective of finance) seem to be enforcing a power struggle, not taking into account the deceased’s wishes but wanting the situation to suit themselves. This was exactly the case.

        My partner made crystal clear to me and others in his later years what he wanted for his scattering, but sadly the more estranged people demanded something very different, which I knew he didn’t want later on. This happened because he changed his opinion over time, and they were not willing to accept that – unreasonably, they didn’t want to concede he was any different a person to the one they knew years before, and they were perhaps jealous that another person was now closer to him. That was especially sad because, as I say, he had not estranged himself from them – in fact, it was they who had made no effort for him for quite some time. Any time when visits were discussed, this person asked him to visit them – miles away, when he was unwell and too frail to do so. It upsets me a lot to think that he was too unwell, when they were able-bodied and travelled to London regularly for business meetings and fun jaunts, but never once visited where we lived in that time. I felt sad to wonder about how disappointed he must have been and I downplayed such situations so they didn’t play on his mind – but I knew he didn’t feel very loved by them, even though he loved them very much and fondly told me many stories about his memories. They should have respected his more recent wishes and decisions in life, knowing, with a little humility, that they had not been very attentive.

        So when he passed I tried to persuade everyone that we should hold the scattering where he asked for it to be held, and advised of what he told me repeatedly – how he expected everyone to be there together. It was this person’s last opportunity to make an effort, which I assumed they would. He imagined a very beautiful event and I wanted to give him this, thinking others would all rally around for him. But selfishness again got the better of this individual who didn’t even want to take a day off work, let alone to travel the three hours to that special place – that day being his first birthday after he passed, and in the height of the summer. In fact, none of the trouble makers marked that space in their diaries to do something nice to remember him, which I found astounding – as if they intended to go about their humdrum duties that day without sparing a thought. What that situation has made clear to me was that children / step-kids of the deceased, even if they love the individual, usually won’t do so with the same fervour and integrity as that person’s partner. There is always the caregiving transaction of ‘parent doing all the work’, until that person becomes mature enough to care-give back – which so far this person had never done.

        When you truly love your partner, by comparison it is never about ‘you’ – rather, you do so much for them every day, selflessly. And when they are ill in hospital you are confronted for the first time with feeling totally helpless – you want to do everything you possibly can to save their life and to show them your love, but sadly your effort must end eventually when life ceases. They are taken away from you and you can never again make them smile or cuddle them. Your love has no outcome or positive difference, it suddenly seems. And how I wished I could see him smile again! That is the hardest thing in the world when you love someone that much – when you feel so close that you may be in their veins, and you hear their words again and again after they are gone, never wanting to let go. Your every memory of them, your intimate discussions and experiences, and your wish to give them even your own life if only you could, is so profoundly there at the end, with only you remaining as their close soulmate and representative on this earth. So, my hope was for us all to give him the most special day we could – to do so just as we would have done for a special birthday party if he were alive, as if he could somehow witness all our love and smile his biggest smile – to give him the day he so vividly described to me years earlier. All I wanted to do is enable his voice to carry one last time. That’s why it was utterly heartbreaking for these people to think only of themselves.

        Even the language they used in emails to describe what ‘they wanted’ was all about them and not about how to celebrate him in the way *he* wanted. Everyone is entitled to their own emotions, and to express themselves in ways unique to them, but one should never lose sight of the person’s own wishes – and sadly, that is exactly what happened. Again, even in death, things were on this person’s terms – when they were old enough to know better, with grown up children of their own. So the only thing I could do to resolve the situation was to respect the time they had together, and their memories, by apportioning some ashes to them. But because they intended to do what my partner didn’t want I could never have been so cavalier as to apportion equally – as I’d have gone against his wishes. He wanted the full grouping of people there, so I was already going back on my promise to him by dividing. We scattered he majority where he requested, with those who were thoughtful and loving enough to be there, and we gave this dissenting person a small amount. They assumed they had more than actually was given – which was not very honest, and made me feel bad – but morally I couldn’t work it any other way, not least because demanding them to attend the main scattering would only have provoked their bad behaviour, potentially ruining the big day. The last thing we would have wanted was an argument. In doing what I did, I felt content in knowing that I respected their time together by sharing the ashes – this was in honour of him, and with compassion for their memories. Ultimately, the decision was based on my partner’s request, but I carefully thought about what those people meant to him, remembering his fond stories and love. The last thing I wanted to do was hurt anyone he loved, so, yes, it was a very tricky situation.

        It’s important to accept in these circumstances that you just can’t reason with some people, even if you try really hard, but that equally you have to accept that people are fallible and you just have to find a peaceful solution the deceased would have no doubt accepted. I had hoped we’d not have to compromise, for his sake, but I was given little choice by this slightly self-centred individual. I kept my end of the bargain and gave my partner a wonderful send-off. What the other person did with them I will probably never know, and I half dread to think, but at least I gave them for the right reasons. It is my hope that this person will grow up and learn one day to put others before themselves. My partner’s later years might have been more comforting if only this person showed their love once in a while – and I find it hard not to resent that. Nonetheless, I had to park that thought when making the decision, to respect their former times together. I hope something can be learnt from my ‘case study’ – from both sides. Empathy and respect is the way forward – not jealousy and ownership.

        1. Reply
          Richard Martin - 6th August 2018

          Dear Emma
          Empathy and respect – with you every step of the way.
          Kind regards
          Richard

  3. Reply
    Emma Chapel - 7th July 2018

    No one owns ashes – in the UK they cannot legally be anyone’s property: it’s a human body, and since the abolition of slavery no one owns another human being. And even if ashes are mentioned by the deceased in a will, that is the one mention on the will that is not legally-binding – executors are free to ignore it. The person who may legally remove the ashes from the undertaker or crematorium after the funeral is the signatory of the funeral documents – the ‘Applicant’ who signs the undertaker’s papers agreeing to the release of the body from the hospital and the funeral arrangements.. The undertaker cannot release the ashes to anyone else except the Applicant, unless the Applicant has expressed their wishes to allow another person to do so. So, if you are the Applicant and find yourself in a dispute with others, to be on the safe side keep the ashes with the undertaker or crematorium a little while longer, giving them instructions not to release to anyone but you as Applicant. This may save a difficult domestic situation, should those you are in dispute with visit your home and demand them (always a risk). It would help to buy a little time to encourage others to think things through calmly, than to make rash decisions. If they cannot agree and are being unreasonable, eventually remove the ashes and scatter when they’re not expecting. When you collect them, give the crematorium instructions not to tell anyone who calls or visits them about the current status of the ashes (they hold notes on record and can abide by this rule). This might enable you to have a little peace with the ashes before going on to scatter them. You could try splitting the ashes, but this is a divisive way to scatter a loved one when no doubt they’d have preferred all their loved ones there together for the scattering, getting on with each other. But if others have behaved badly, preventing one united show of love, you may have little option either to scatter, yourself, or to split the ashes. Remember: crematorium grinders different from place to place. This means that some ashes are ground to a dense powder (giving you a lot of ash) and others are more loosely ground to larger particles (less volume of ash). This means that loved ones won’t necessarily know how much ash there will be – so you could give them a much smaller proportion of it and scatter the great majority of your loved one’s remains without them realising. If the family are Catholic and used to burials, this is all the more reason to take that approach as they may not have a clue how much ash to expect from their loved one’s cremation. But ultimately whatever you decide, always ensure you keep the undertaker and crematorium up to date about wanting to collect the ashes – you don’t want them scattered for you in the garden of remembrance, which does sometimes happen after 3-6 months if you give no instruction. Good luck to everyone visiting this page who has arrived here through a dispute. It’s very hard, but try to think laterally – do this not for your sake, but for the deceased’s, as this is not about ownership and not getting on with others; it’s about doing what that individual wanted. The chances are, the partner will know much more about the deceased’s wishes than anyone else, but sadly partners are often badly treated by blood relatives in these circumstances.

  4. Reply
    Maggie - 7th April 2018

    Does this mean that as executor on funeral plan I can collect ashes of my friend?

    1. Reply
      Richard Martin - 9th April 2018

      Dear Maggie
      Please refer to this guide – I hope it will help: https://www.scattering-ashes.co.uk/help-advice/scattering-ashes-guide-series/
      Kind regards
      Richard

  5. Reply
    Christine - 3rd December 2017

    My mom passed away unexpectedly in California..and had no will. She selected my daughter as the medical directive / informant. My mom was creamated and my daughter has her ashes and won’t give them up to me or anyone else except 2 ppl in the family, who has the legal right to have my mom’s ashes

    1. Reply
      Richard Martin - 4th December 2017

      Dear Christine I’m sorry to hear that. In the UK person who organises the funeral and contracts the Undertaker has the right to collect them from their crematorium or the undertaker.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to top