How To Use A Wish Lantern


  I’ve heard about wish lanterns, sometimes called sky lanterns, for a long time, but only recently got a chance to use one in a family ritual.

            These are rice paper lanterns that contain a flammable pad at the bottom. Once it is lit, the lantern fills up with hot air and then it can be released, carried off by the wind and eventually burned up completely. The lanterns come in white or colors, and typically are about three feet tall.

            Weddings are one of the festive events where sky lanterns have become common, and you may have seen photographs of dark skies dotted with dozens of bright lights.

            I’m taking some lanterns to the Jersey shore soon, and plan to launch some lanterns with my son to celebrate the milestone of his starting college, but my first use of wish lanterns had a more somber theme. I was gathered with immediate family at a small reunion on the coast of North Carolina in June. This is where my parents spent the end of their lives, and where their ashes are scattered: my mother’s at an ocean pier and my dad’s on the golf course, near his last hole-in-one.

Throwing rose petals on the water, in memory of our mother, June 2011.

Throwing rose petals on the water, in memory of our mother, June 2011.

             In the past, we have scattered rose petals where the ashes lay, but this time, I decided it might be good to try sky lanterns instead. I was able to buy two white lanterns at the local kite store, one for each of them. I decided that as part of the ceremony, we would write each write a note or wish to them on the lantern itself. This proved quite easy to do, as the rice paper was sturdy.

My nephew Stephen writes on one of the lanterns.

My nephew Stephen writes on one of the lanterns.


            All of us were staying in a lovely beach motel, and we gathered at dark on the grass in front of my sister’s first floor room.  It took a little time to get a feel for how the lanterns work: you have to hang on to them until they fill with air, or they drop to the ground.


Trying to light the wish lantern.

Trying to light the wish lantern.

          When it was full and gently tugging on our arms, we released the first lantern. It was so beautiful and hopeful as it rose, and all of us, even the teenagers, had tears in our eyes as we watched it soar slowly out of sight. Then we launched the second one, shouting good wishes to our beloveds.

         This was one of those pure ritual moments I love so much, when every sense and thought is collectively focused. We lived and breathed in those moments together, and felt the same things, and knew how connected we truly are.


We love you Mom & Dad!

We love you Mom & Dad!

         And as we stood there, we suddenly realized that many other motel guests were standing outside on the grass and balconies, watching us light and launch these lanterns. They clapped and cheered, and that magnified our feelings of joy.  It was a very special night.

         I’m eager to use this tool again, and explore some of the other milestones and occasions where it will deepen the experience.

Two cautionary pieces of advice:

*Remember you are, literally, playing with fire and you MUST take the recommended precautions seriously. Don’t try this in a high wind, or next to trees or buildings. I have watched a YouTube video where 200 wedding guests launched lanterns at the same time, and one landed on the roof of the party house and caught it on fire.

*Do not buy the cheapest, chintziest ones, as they can be defective and even more dangerous than the regular ones. I recommend the ones made by Birando, which are well made and packaged. I bought the 10 pack for about $25, which is quite reasonable. (They also sell wish lanterns to float on water, confetti cannons and plenty of other party and ceremony supplies.)

I’d love to hear about your experiences with wish lanterns, and I hope you’ll share a comment.

P.S. Having tried and failed to ignite wish lanterns on several subsequent occasions, I wanted to give you our “secret to success.” I’ve found that regular cigarette lighters and those long-handled grill starters are really difficult to use. The best bet is super-long matches, like these. We used them recently to send off a wish lantern the night before my son left for college. 



  1. I have seen people attach ashes to these things and sent them out over the ocean. I would like to do that. is there a way to attach something with ashes in them?

    • Were you able to find a way to attach the ashes? I would love to know. We are hoping to do this for a memorial for my son in a few weekends and I’m wondering how! Any advise?!

      • Sorry for the delayed response. I do not know of any way to attach ashes. I’m afraid that would make the lantern too heavy to fly away. I hope your memorial was a powerful and comforting experience.

  2. This was incredibly helpful! I’m glad I stumbled across your page! Sorry for your losses. Glad you’re doing something thoughtful to celebrate their lives.

Comments welcome