Who Legally Owns Cremation Ashes?

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When it comes to cremation ashes, one of the most common questions is ‘where can ashes be scattered in the UK?’

This one is fairly easy.

 The UK has a very relaxed attitude to the scattering of ashes. In general, it’s ok as long as you don’t pollute the environment and it’s not on private land, without permission.

So that means no plastic trinkets or mementos can be added to the ashes, and if you are using an urn for a memorial on the water, the urn should be biodegradable.

There are some areas along the coast of the north sea where it’s not permitted (under EU rules, which may change when the UK leaves).

It’s generally considered that as long as you are respectful of the environment and how other people might use the space, then the scattering of ashes is widely regarded as ok.

It’s also worth considering that if the land is private and you have the landowner’s permission, you may not be able to visit again later.

Fireworks, space flights, tattoos and jewellery… people’s ashes have been memorialised in a host of creative ways.

But What if People Don’t Agree on What Should be Done with the Ashes?

It’s not uncommon to find families disagreeing on the way a deceased loved one should be memorialised. It can be as simple as not seeing-eye-to-eye to as complicated as a long court case.

It’s estimated that around 25% of

And as families become blended, with children, step-children and parents remarrying, the potential for disagreement is much increased.

It’s why leaving a will is important and suggested in some funeral plans.

When a person is cremated the crematorium releases the ashes to a nominated person, or the person who made the application for the cremation, but that person is not, in law, considered the legal owner.

Where instructions are left the law does give the executor the legal right to decide the deceased’s funeral arrangements. If there is no will, the intestacy rules apply which ranks family members in the following order:

  •  the surviving spouse or civil partner
  •  the deceased’s children,
  • the deceased’s parents
  • the deceased’s siblings

The deceased’s cohabiting partner or children thereof are excluded.

If a family can’t agree the courts can be called on to decide taking into account:


  •  the wishes of the deceased
  • the reasonable wishes of the friends and family
  •  the location where the deceased was the most closely connected


The overruling consideration though is dealing with the body in a quick and dignified way. The court will not decide to split the ashes to meet the wishes of arguing parties in a court case.


When you Apply for Cremation

When you apply for a cremation you will be asked about your requirements for the ashes. The crematorium may have a place for the ashes to be laid to rest, or you or a nominated person can collect the ashes (the nominated person can be a funeral director). The options should be discussed with you.

But you don’t have to decide at that point. You can request the crematorium hold on to the ashes, but you will be asked for a future date for a decision to be made by. There may be a charge for this.

And if you change your mind (or your address) you should let the crematorium know in writing.

Crematoria have their own regulations and if you give no instruction to the crematorium or do not collect the ashes the cremation authority becomes responsible for interring or scattering the ashes (they must make reasonable attempts to get in touch with you and give you 14 days’ notice of the plan). If you object you can give new written instructions, but the cremation authority would need to receive them before the 14-day notice period ends.


In law a body is not property and cannot be owned, and it extends to the ashes. However, the law does give the legal right of possession of the ashes to the executor or highest ranked next of kin (where a will has not been made). This extends to the ashes.

The executor or highest ranked family relative can insist on having the ashes returned to them whether they applied for cremation or not.


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