Co-op lets mourners scatter ashes by drone in UK first

A box-carrying drone in flight across UK’s wetlands  (Aerial ashes)
A box-carrying drone in flight across UK’s wetlands (Aerial ashes)

It’s hard to imagine a more fitting tribute to an England football fan than to have their cremated ashes dispersed by drone across the hallowed Wembley turf – or perhaps tipped into the river in the shadow of Twickenham Stadium, for those who prefer rugby.

In a surprising development, Co-op funeral services is now offering its customers the opportunity to have their loved-one’s ashes safely scattered from the load box of a remote-control drone at the location of their choice - though the above venues may be a little too public. You can even capture a video of this special event for posterity.

The new service is available nationwide at the company’s 800 funeral homes, for those who have arranged the funeral through Co-op or a third party.

The ceremony sees a custom drone equipped with boxes for carrying ashes take to the skies at a predetermined location chosen by bereaved family members. These include locations over land and sea, including beauty spots and sports grounds, according to Co-op. The company says the service will allow customers to reach hard-to-access locations, with Co-op securing all the necessary legal permissions beforehand.

Loved-ones can attend the scattering and have it recorded using a second drone. Both are manned by trained employees from Co-op’s partner on the service, Aerial Ashes, a firm that specialises in the scattering of ashes via drones.

Overall, the scattering process takes just a few seconds. But the prep work that goes into the service involves a series of steps designed to meet strict rules concerning safety, training, licensing, insurance - as well as causing the least disturbance to the public- according to Aerial Ashes.  The company has been granted operational authorisation to carry out the service by the UK’s drone-flight regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority.

As Aerial Ashes notes on its website, getting permission from the landowner where the ashes are being scattered can take several weeks and sometimes approval isn’t granted. The company adds that scattering ashes at sea is less complicated, due to legal permissions being extant. However, due to the busy nature of beaches in summer, the service tends to occur during the early hours of the morning.

London’s tightly controlled airspaces and bustling public areas also pose their own set of possible complications. Co-op has to keep the drones clear of the public due to relevant laws, meaning scattering ashes at a busy public location or “extremely well-known site” is not possible, a company spokesperson said.

While Co-op has yet to carry out the service in the capital, a request to scatter ashes via drone at a block of flats in East London was recently turned down. Permission would be viable on some parts of the Thames, a Co-op spokesperson noted, with a recent order explored on the North Bank near Dagenham.

In addition, Co-op is also exploring permission to scatter ashes over rivers and parks. Outside of London, permissions have been granted for a riverside scattering on the outskirts of Stratford-upon-Avon and at a UK university, to commemorate someone who once worked there.

Aerial Ashes states that the cost of its service is £975, with an additional cost for an extra drone for double scatterings.  The option to have photographs and a video recording of the event is available for £375. Aerial Ashes uses the DJI Matrice M600 Pro drone to carry the ashes, while either a Mavic or Inspire 2 drone is used for filming.

Experienced drone-operator and former RAF pilot Chris Mace said: “The use of drones to provide new options to scatter ashes is an emerging and unique way that this technology can offer a truly memorable service.

“Ensuring that the right permissions are sought is essential, and weather conditions must be favourable, but the use of a drone alleviates much of the worry when families want to scatter ashes in otherwise hard-to-reach locations.”

With around four-fifths of funerals now said to be cremations, and given that both time and space are tight in London, it feels like demand is likely to rise.

After all, nothing says “I love you” like the gentle hum of a drone taking your mortal remains to their final resting place.