Selecting an urn | Empathy
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The Funeral

Selecting an urn

Key considerations about urns


  • You may want a different kind of urn depending on whether you are scattering the ashes, burying the urn, or keeping it in a place of honor.

  • Most urns cost between $100 and $300. You do not have to purchase one from your funeral home.

  • If you will be traveling with the urn, think about sizes and materials that may be easier to fly with.

  • Urns come in different sizes with different designs, and there is likely one that reflects your loved one's taste or something about who they were.


After you lose someone close to you, all the little decisions you have to make can seem overwhelming, particularly when you’re in grief. Selecting an urn to be your loved one’s final resting place is one of these choices, which may seem simple but can still feel daunting and very final. 

Some families find it easiest to leave the decision in the hands of a funeral home or director or to go with their best suggestion. If you want to make the choice yourself, there are a few factors you should take into consideration. Whatever you decide, remember that this is a very personal decision to you and your family; nobody can tell you how best to memorialize your loved one, and whatever choice you make, it will be the right one.

Where will the urn end up?

First, consider how the urn will be used and where it will be placed, before moving on to considering its visual appearance and construction. Do you intend to keep the ashes as a permanent memorial of your loved one? Or is it a temporary vessel? Where will the urn be kept, and in what way?

Scattering

If you intend to scatter your loved one’s ashes, you may want to opt for an urn designed for scattering.  The most common and inexpensive type of scattering urn is a tube urn, usually made of paper or bamboo. These consist of two parts: an inner chamber containing the ashes, and an outer sheathing or lid that slides over it, sealing as well as decorating the urn. When you are ready to spread the ashes, you can take off the lid, perforate a tab, and gently release. 

For a scattering at sea, you may opt to use a biodegradable container; often made of paper, salt, or other soluble material, they are designed to slowly sink and then dissolve below the surface. 

Burial

Interment of ashes in a cemetery or urn garden is a popular choice for those who wish to give anyone who loved the person the option to visit their final resting place. The urn rests in a smaller burial plot than that of a casket, and is placed inside a small underground vault to protect it from the weight of the earth or intrusion by water or maintenance equipment. In this case, a simple unadorned stone or metal urn usually suffices. 

There is also a growing trend of green cemeteries, which emphasize limiting environmental impact and the beauty of the landscape; these locations require a biodegradable container that will naturally break down over time.

Mausoleum or columbarium

These stately buildings are traditional interment places that house many families’ urns. A columbarium may be housed within a mausoleum, or it can be its own freestanding structure. If you are choosing to place your loved one’s ashes in such a building, it’s important to consult the director of the facility about the size of the niche or shelf on which the urn is to rest. They may even have a standard urn which all families in their facility use for the sake of solemnity and uniformity.

At home

In many cultures and religious traditions, it is common to place an urn within a home shrine or in a place of honor such as a mantel, a china cabinet, or a purpose-built niche. Some people create an outdoor shrine, either in an above-ground memorial or buried in the yard, in which case an urn vault is required. 

You may wish to discuss with other family members if they would like to divide the ashes among each other in smaller urns, often referred to as keepsake urns, which hold a small symbolic amount of the ashes. Otherwise you will want to designate one household as the primary caretaker of the ashes. 

You may choose to honor the memory of your loved one by reflecting their character and personality through the attributes of the urn.

As a unique alternative to ready-made urns, consider contacting a local artisan to create an urn or container that reflects the essence of your loved one. Permanent, durable, solid materials are recommended for home storage, such as stone, ceramic, metal, or hardwoods.

Other considerations

Cost

The cost of an urn depends to a large degree on the materials used. Plan to budget around $100 to $300 for a permanent urn made of stone, ceramic, or glass urn. Biodegradable urns made from substances such as bamboo, salt, or paper are slightly less expensive, from around $50 to $200. 

If burying an urn, plan on an additional $100 to 150 for the vault. Highly ornamented artisan craftwork, high-end materials such as cloisonne enamel or precious metal inlays may push the price as high as $2,500, but these are exceptional—there are many beautiful and fitting urns available at reasonable price points. 

Legally, a funeral home must use any urn you provide. You cannot be forced to purchase one from or through them. If a funeral director insists on perpetuating this fallacy, you should report them to your Secretary of State’s office, and/or the state board of funeral director licensing; the NFDA, or National Funeral Directors Association, maintains a list of each of these organizations.

Travel

Traveling with ashes requires some planning ahead. If you are flying home to a family burial place or to a scattering location, consider airport security. Metal or metal-lined urns may have to be inspected, which can feel shocking and intrusive. This can be avoided by choosing a wooden, ceramic, stone, temporary, or biodegradable urn. Pull aside a security worker the way you might if traveling with a medical device and inform them you are traveling with ashes that must be treated with care, respect, and dignity.

Size

The size of an urn is another important consideration. Ashes generally take up 150 to 200 cubic inches, and a full-sized urn typically holds up to 200. Larger urns are available for larger people. If not dividing or scattering a portion of the ashes, bear in mind that an urn can be too small, but cannot be too large. Of course, if the urn is to be placed in a niche or burial vault, those do have a maximum size.

Design

The design and the overall look of the urn is also a key element. Some take this opportunity to honor the memory of their loved one by reflecting their character and personality through the attributes of the urn that holds their ashes. Religious, national and cultural traditions play an important role here as well—some Christians choose to have an urn bearing an image of the cross, or the sign of the fish. People of Irish or Gaelic ancestry may want to adopt a pattern of Celtic knotwork. East Asians may tend toward hand-painted porcelain, enamel cloisonne, wood-fired stoneware, or jade urns. 

Try to identify with the spirit of your loved one: Did their aesthetic tastes in life gravitate toward simplicity? Or were they fond of floral or ornamental patterns? As for the material, if choosing a permanent, durable urn, people often choose stone, blown glass, ceramics, hardwoods, or metal. If you feel a large urn is too imposing or burdensome to keep, many families choose to honor their loved ones with a smaller keepsake urn, or even create jewelry that incorporates a minute portion of the ashes.

This process isn’t easy, but by taking a methodical approach and weighing your options carefully you will make the right choice. It’s OK to ask others for help, and take the time you need to make the decision that is best for you, your family, and the memory of the person you all loved ●

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The Funeral

The Funeral

A funeral or memorial ceremony is an opportunity for you and your family and the community of those who knew your loved one to grieve, and to honor and celebrate their life. The type of service you choose and all of its details will depend upon several factors; we’re here to guide you through each one.

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