Cremation, Ashes, and Shotguns

I fired my Dad out of a shotgun.
First of all, no, this is not a joke. Yes, I am serious about this, and I did it in a way to honor him.

Testing a shotgun shell filled with fireplace wood ash (NOT human remains!)

My father passed away going on 3 months ago. He was cremated, as was his wish, with the plan to scatter his ashes on private hunting land belonging to a family friend. Covid-19 meant we couldn’t have the funeral right away. I also have brothers who live far away, including one in Equador, who we wanted to make sure would be here for the ceremony. That would take time and quarantining. My father passed away in June, but we had his funeral in September.

My father was an avid outdoorsman – hunting, fishing, canoeing, dog-training, etc. He hunted white-tail deer and pheasants mostly, but also some ducks and other birds. He did a few special hunting trips. One of them was buffalo hunting. He killed it in one shot with an antique rifle.

Posing with the Buffalo and his 1884 Springfield trapdoor .45-70 GOVT Rifle.
My father (center) with friends both human and canine.

I’m not a hunter, but I went trap-shooting with him a number of times and was always interested in when he was working with the old-time style firearms. He had a number of muzzle-loading guns and even built one from scratch.

Since he’s passed away, I’ve been going through his guns. I think it’s partly because they are a physical thing left behind in the wake of his passing. Something still here even though he isn’t. I had to talk to one of my uncles (who was also a hunting-buddy of my father’s) to get the history of most of the guns. I also wrote down make/model/serial#s and was able to research some general information on several of the guns. One was my grandfather’s shotgun. Another was my grand-MOTHER’s shotgun (on the other side of the family.) Another was just a very plain old single-shot .22, but my father repaired and refinished it into a really nice piece.

My grandmother’s 1926 THE FULTON by Hunter Arms.

I’m pretty sure that the “Grandma-Gun” was the one that I used the only time I ACTUALLY went hunting with him. We went pheasant hunting. When it was my turn, and the dog flushed a bird, I swung and fired, nailing the pheasant. It was bitter-sweet. I love my Dad, and enjoyed spending the day with him, but I’m also pretty soft-hearted when it comes to animals. That was really the last time I ever needed to shoot a pheasant. But I DID get it on my very first (and last) shot.

So, after a lifetime in the outdoors, hunting and shooting, I wanted to do something MORE than simply sprinkle his ashes to the wind.

He said he wanted his ashes spread over that particular piece of land, but he didn’t specify HOW. I’ve loaded some of his ashes into 10 shotgun shells. We will fire them out over the property after all the “official” family ceremony. I have a number of uncles who are all avid hunters as well, and I want to offer them to be able to fire off a round as well.

Because my father was into much of the older style of firearms, I wanted to do something special. My Grandmother’s shotgun is a 20 ga side-by-side break-action. It’s “THE FULTON” by Hunter Arms of New York. According the serial number, it was made in 1926. I ordered all BRASS shotgun shells. These were used from about cowboy times up through the world wars.

20 Gauge Magtech brand brass shotgun shells.

Besides the shells, I used mostly what I could find with my father’s muzzle-loading supplies. This included black-powder replacement. (The safer modern version of black powder.)

The brass shells use a different type of primer than most modern shotgun shells, but I was able to easily find them in the sporting goods section of a local store. I pressed the primers into the bottom of the shells with a 5/8″ dowel, which is perfect for 20 ga shells.

Some of the reloading tools, straight from my dad’s loading box.

I measured out 70 grains of black powder (using my dad’s old brass powder measure.) I poured that down into the shells, covered the powder with a cardboard “wad” and compressed it down with the dowel.

You can buy big bags of wads, Nitro-cards, and overshot cards (all names of specific dividers used inside the shotgun shell) but that’s usually by the big bag full, and all mail-order. I only needed a few. Also, the inside of the brass shells are a slightly different diameter than the far more modern and popular plastic shells.

Brass shells with manufactured “Nitro Cards” for loading.

I have a CNC paper cutter. You may have heard of a Cricut or a Cameo Silhouette. ( It’s a device that looks about like an ink-jet printer. Only instead it has essentially an X-acto knife on the carriage. You simply plug it into your computer and then can make fast and incredibly accurate cuts on paper, adhesive vinyl, and other materials. They are super-commonly used for making signage, and loved by crafters.So, I used my modern computer technology to cut very specific sized circles of cardboard (out of an old cereal box) to use as spacers inside 150 year-old-style brass shotgun shells.

Cutting wads on my CNC paper cutter.

After the primer, power, and over-powder-wad, I added the cremation ashes. I used a small funnel. Each shell used about a spoonful. I would pour in about half the material, compress it with the dowel, pour in the rest, and compress that with the dowel, until it was packed in tight.

The ash was sifted ahead of time. Cremation ash, as you get it from the funeral director, is NOT light and fluffy like fireplace ash. It’s heavy and will have various size pieces in it. Keep in mind that “ash” is really bone.

There is NO lead shot in these rounds, only ash. The best way I could describe the ash is that it’s almost like a gritty beach sand.

Cremation Ashes loaded in the shells.

I put a second cardboard circle into the brass shell, over the ashes. I wrote my father’s initials on the card first, then put it in, and then sealed it shut.There’s a number of ways to seal the card to the tube. One old-fashioned way of doing it is with melted bee’s wax. There actually was some bee’s wax in a tin with the reloading supplies. I have no idea what it was there for. I did try it, and sealed shut several of the shells with it.I also tried Elmer’s glue, which I ended up using for all the rest of the shells. While not as “old-fashioned”, the glue dries clear. Using just a small amount seals the cardboard nicely, and leaves a very clean look. (It was very easy to get messy with the wax!)

Prepared rounds, just waiting for the glue to dry.

Gluing the overshot cards in place. Looks great once the school glue has dried clear.

Before doing all this, I tested two shells with fireplace ash. That ash is a lot lighter than the cremation ash. As such, I made sure to compress the fireplace ash as tightly as I could into the shell.I went to the local public shooting range and test fired both those shells out of the old 20 gauge. Both fired well, with a nice plume of smoke and ash. Black powder produces significantly MORE smoke than modern powder. It was a good BANG with smoke and ash. I brought my video camera with me so that I could watch the test on playback.

In with all the reloading supplies were plenty of various small containers. Most of them were tins from some time ago. Nowadays, we might have an Altoids tin, but all the ones my dad had were mostly tobacco tins, including, I kid you not, a “Prince Albert in a Can” can.Among the various tins was a wood box for an old safety razor. I was looking at the box and noticed it was about the right size for a few shells. I put a few in there and though it looked nice. Then I realized that it would EXACTLY fit the shells vertically. LIKE IT WAS MADE FOR IT. So, right there, I found the presentation case for the shells. Who needs an urn when you have a 50 year old wood box kicking around?

Shotgun shells in presentation box.

On the day of the event, the whole family met out at the hunting land where we would spread the ashes. We had set up two pop-up tents and some chairs. We asked family members to bring a camping chair if they could, and to make sure to wear appropriate footwear.

We had a table set up with a photo, memorabilia, flowers, and the cremated remains. A cousin acted as an emcee and led us in telling stories about the life of my father.

We also had small jars of ash, so that each family group could spread ashes there.
(This was when the main amount of ashes was scattered. The ash in the shotgun shells was ceremonial, but only a small amount of the total remains.)
We read some poems, played some music, and had a bagpiper perform Amazing Grace.

At the end, I announced how I was going to spread the ashes, and invited the others who would be interested. (Ahead of time, I discussed this with family members who I thought would want to be involved.)

Besides those, there were a few others who wanted to participate as well. One of those was my nine-year old daughter, who had never fired a real gun before. This was really special to me. Frankly, I hadn’t thought of her at as one who would want to participate. She generally doesn’t like loud noises, and the shotgun would be relatively large and heavy for her. I’m glad she had the courage to step forward and say she wanted to participate.

We took turns firing the ashes into the air – downwind, and away from the crowd. A few orange banners I had planted were nice visual reminders of which way the wind was blowing.

For anyone who hadn’t used this style of gun before, it was very easy for me to quickly show how to load, fire, and remove the shell. Family members got to keep the brass shell after they removed it from the gun.

After everyone who wanted to had taken a turn, there were still two rounds left. I loaded them into the shotgun and let loose with both barrels, sending my father towards the heavens.

My Dad said that he wanted to be cremated with his ashes spread at this location. He just didn’t specify how.

But I think this would have made him smile.


If you want to honor somebody in the same way, I made a video showing HOW I loaded the ashes into shotgun shells.

Watch the “HOW-TO” video.

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