Jennifer Beman wants to spend her death where she made her life, in her adopted home town of Takoma Park. Like others who have their cremated remains unofficially scattered in the Maryland city’s back yards and public parks, the 54-year-old likes the ashes-to-ashes idea of lingering eternally in her local ecosystem.
But Beman and a group of like-minded neighbors are going a step further than the kind of DIY ash-tossing that has grown common as cremation rates in the United States have doubled over the past 15 years. They are asking their city to set up the country’s first municipal “scatter garden,” a patch of memorial commons where residents could commingle in the soil of their burg — and where families could return to remember.
“Throwing them in the ocean is very romantic, but then there is no place for a person to go back to,” said Beman, a documentary filmmaker. “You can go with your kids and say, ‘I think it was somewhere around here, but maybe it was on the other side of the island.’ I like the idea of a real place.”
While cremation experts said no city has set up such a stand-alone facility, the Takoma Park proposal is part of a boom in “cremation spaces” related to huge shifts in burial customs. Cremation, once all but unknown in the United States, is rapidly becoming the norm — climbing from a quarter of deaths in 2000 to almost 49 percent in 2015, according to industry tracking.
Seeing a chance to increase both capacity and profits, cemeteries are opening sections where families can deposit ashes for a fee, by scattering them in gardens, burying them in small plots or placing them in wall niches. Some are constructing ossuaries, underground chambers where families can deposit the remains in velvet bags. (One Pennsylvania cemetery offers a separate ossuary for veterans of each military branch.)
Churches, universities and even a botanical garden in Arizona are among the institutions offering themselves as depositories for cremated remains, said Barbara Kemmis, head of the Cremation Association of North America. The trend is driven by the desire in many families for a more permanent memorial to their loved ones, she said.
Although many keep an urn on the mantel, Kemmis estimates that a third of families scatter remains out in the world, including on beloved beaches and from favorite roller coasters. Chicago’s Wrigley Field reported a minor blizzard of unauthorized ash spreading during this year’s World Series campaign by the Cubs. The Metropolitan Opera in New York recently shut down a performance after a man poured the cremains of his musical mentor in the orchestra pit.
A minor industry has arisen to deliver human remains to ever-more unreachable places, including the Holy Land, ocean reefs, the high atmosphere and space. According to U.S. Funerals Online, you can have your departed shot into the sky as a firework, made part of a coffee mug, incorporated into a tattoo or squeezed at super pressure into a fake diamond.
Authorities mostly hold a don’t-ask-don’t-tell attitude toward the widespread practice of depositing ashes in national parks, forests and other public places. The remains — three to five pounds of calcium phosphate that has been baked at nearly 2,000 degrees — isn’t considered a toxin. Official guidance is often limited to getting permission from private landowners and keeping upwind of your scattering loved one.
But as more people spread their family members to the wilds, more are missing a permanent placeholder.
“Some people refer to all this as a lost generation from a memorial point of view,” Kemmis said. “A scatter garden, with their names engraved on a wall, offers the best of both worlds, the free-spirit nature of scattering plus a permanent memorial.”
Beman’s interest in a city site began after the recent death of her father-in-law, who couldn’t be buried in his longtime home of Greenbelt, Md., because the city cemetery was full. He was interred in a veterans’ cemetery 25 miles away.
“It got me thinking of a person’s relationship to the community where they had lived their whole life,” said Beman, who already had decided she wanted to be cremated. “Those cemeteries don’t have any meaning for me. My city does.”
She envisioned 1,000 or so square feet of one of the city’s existing gardens, a simple wall for names on plaques, maybe a path, maybe a bench. Residents would pay a modest fee to cover the cost of the engraving and to be registered by the city. She reckons three or four of the 60-odd city residents who die each year might end up in the garden. Over eternity, it would add up. “After 100 years, there would be all these people who lived in Takoma Park,” she said.
Beman found a lot of enthusiasm among other residents of the socially active suburb, and another advocacy group was born. They scoured state and federal regulations and found none that would keep the city from providing space for half a milk jug’s worth of, essentially, a soil additive.
“It’s bone meal,” Beman said.
So far, it has been an easy sell in a city known for social progressivism, environmental activism and lots of acid-loving azaleas. More than 160 residents have signed a supportive petition, and the city’s public works department, which would be responsible for upkeep, said it doesn’t see a lot of extra work in the idea.
“If it’s in a place where we already do rudimentary maintenance, this wouldn’t add much,” said Public Works Director Daryl Braithwaite, who helped scatter her grandfather’s ashes off the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.
In mid-November, a few weeks after presenting her idea to the City Council, Beman stood in the middle of one of several potential sites, a loosely manicured traffic triangle in front of the Takoma Park library. A veterans’ memorial stood in one corner. A wall of azaleas provided no buffer against the buses streaming down Philadelphia Avenue.
“A little noisy,” she said, looking around. There are several other parks to evaluate as well. “Maybe some plantings over here would help. Or the wall.”
Beman knows the city will provide little funding beyond routine maintenance and the land. In addition to a website, tpmsg.org, her group has produced a fundraising video to attract the $10,000 to $50,000 it will need, depending on the design.
One skeptic is council member Peter Kovar. While many of his constituents have signed the pro-garden petition, he worries that the perpetual obligation could burden city workers and finances into, er, perpetuity. He also raises a question unusual in a city government that doesn’t hesitate to take on new duties.
“I can totally understand why people want to do this,” Kovar said. “But just because something is a nice idea doesn’t mean it’s a municipal function.”