Last Updated on January 23, 2021
Shopping for a cremation urn is a a very meaningful and personal process, yet it involves plenty of unfamiliar options, products, and terms. Here is our Beginner’s Guide to Cremation Urns, to help walk you through the available options for honoring your loved one with a cremation urn which is perfectly suited to their memory.
1. What is a Cremation Urn?
A cremation urn is any container that holds cremated remains. From a coffee can to a custom made ceramic recreation of an ancient Han Tomb, from a DIY cremation urn to a traditional cultured marble urn, anything you choose to use to hold the “ashes” is by default a cremation urn.
2. What Terms Do I Need to Know?
Cremation urns go by many various names, including but not limited to funeral urns, cemetery urns, urns for ashes, cremation containers, crematory urns, funerary urns, and more. These are mainly different ways of describing the same thing – it’s just marketing tactics to reach people searching for various synonymns for “cremation urns”.
Q: What is the difference between a cremation urn and a funeral urn?
A: Nothing – both describe the same thing.
However, there are a few terms that are good to know when shopping around for cremation urns. For example, the word “keepsake” is generally used as a code word within the funeral industry for “small.” So if you see a “keepsake urn,” it usually means that it is a smaller urn intended to hold just a portion of the remains. This would be an urn used to hold a partial amount of cremated remains when shared among relatives, or when most of the remains are scattered or buried.
Another set of terms which is helpful to know are the various synonyms for the remains. “Ashes,” “Remains,” “Cremated remains,” the out-of-favor 1990s term “Cremains” (cremated remains) and other terms all simply refer to the bone material that is left after the cremation process. The commonly used term “ashes” is technically a misnomer, so the correct term is “cremated remains,” but because both terms are in general use you’ll see both.
For a complete list of cremation urn terms and definitions, see our article Cremation Urn Terminology.
3. What is the Best Material for a Cremation Urn?
Cremation urns come in all variety of materials. The most popular types include wood, stone, metal, and ceramic. There are other types of materials available as well, including the incresingly popular eco-friendly paper, as well as niche biodegradable varieties like cornstarch, sand, and salt.
But what is the best type of material for a cremation urn? The answer to that question will vary depending on how you want to use the urn, and you will also want to factor in your own personal aesthetic preferences.
If you’re planning on burying the urn, a stone urn such as one from our line of cultured marble urns would be ideal. Cultured marble (like most stone or simulated stone materials) will not decay, and thus does not need an outer protective “urn vault” when burying at a funeral home cemetery.
However, if you prefer the aesthetics of rich, espresso-brown walnut wood as a material, you can still safely bury it if you use the aforementioned protective burial vault.
But maybe you are intending to display the urn in your home, and would like something that will look attractive on the mantle or on a special shelf or table. In this instance, you may prefer the beauty of a hand-made ceramic urn, perhaps with an elegant depiction of a dragonfly. Ceramic will securely hold the cremated remains while providing an aura of delicate intimacy and elegance.
You may be considering the fact that you have children in the home or often visiting, and you worry about a ceramic urn being tipped over and broken. You like the artistry and heirloom-quality of ceramic, but want something that doesn’t break as easy. In this case the best option may be an American-made wood urn, crafted with the same quality as many well-made antiques, with a 3-dimensional wood art scene on the front. The wood comes with a simple finish that preserves the piece, and is sturdy enough that if it were to get bumped it would not break or spill the remains.
Or perhaps you are considering a scattering at sea. There are cremation urns specifically designed for ease of use at sea, made from paper mache, cardboard, sand, or gelatin, which will help you with a sea burial or scattering of the remains.
Ultimately, the best material for a cremation urn depends on your family’s personal preferences combined with how the urn will be used or stored.
4. What are My Rights as a Consumer?
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has produced a set of guidelines called The Funeral Rule, which outlines your rights as a consumer and also dictates what funeral professionals are required to offer and disclose when working with you. The full text is available here, and a really helpful (and detailed) guide to compliance is available here, but you can read the main points below.
According to the FTC’s Funeral Rule, you have the right to:
- Buy only the funeral arrangements you want.
- Get price information on the telephone.
- Get a written, itemized price list when you visit a funeral home.
- See a written casket price list before you see the actual caskets.
- See a written outer burial container price list.
- Receive a written statement after you decide what you want, and before you pay.
- Get an explanation in the written statement from the funeral home that describes any legal cemetery or crematory requirement.
- Use an “alternative container” instead of a casket for cremation.
- Provide the funeral home with a casket or urn you buy elsewhere.
- Make funeral arrangements without embalming.
5. What Urn Sizes are Available?
There are several more-or-less “standard” sizes for cremation urns, all of which are measured by volume in cubic inches. To figure out what size you need, simply take the weight of the individual and convert it at a 1:1 ratio to cubic inches. So, for example, a 175 pound man will require an urn with a capacity of roughly 175 cubic inches. A 12 lbs pet will require an urn with a capacity of 12 cubic inches. A couple whose combined weight equals 360 pounds will require a “companion” urn of roughly 360 cubic inches. For more detailed information on urn sizing, especially large capacity situations, see here.
With that sizing rule of thumb in mind, here are some of the most common urn sizes available:
Standard Adult Cremation Urn
The standard adult cremation urn is generally about 200 cubic inches, and will hold the remains for an average adult weighing up to about 200 lbs. When you’re shopping for urns, check the product details on each page, and it will describe the capacity of the urn. Some are 180 cubic inches, some 230, but most come in right at 200 cubic inches.
Companion Cremation Urn
A companion urn has a capacity of around 400 cubic inches, and is thus twice the size of a standard adult urn. There is generally plenty of room inside these “companion urns” for the remains of a husband and wife couple. See more information in our Complete Guide to Companion Urns.
Keepsake Cremation Urns
As mentioned above, when you see the word “keepsake” in the product name for an urn, think “small urn”. Keepsake urns are generally designed to hold a small ‘keepsake’ portion of remains. This size urn is useful when the remains are scattered or buried, and you would like to keep a small amount. Also widely used when the family divides up or “shares” the ashes among family members. Keepsake urns can vary in size from as small as 1 cubic inch (about a tablespoon) to 75 cubic inches.
As the capacity of keepsake urn increase you’ll see some overlap between keepsake urns and urns listed as “child,” “pet,” or simply “small” urns. See next section.
Urns designed for children, for pets, and for sharing among relatives usually come in a range of sizes from as small as 10 cubic inches up to 150 cubic inches or more. These urns will vary considerably depending on the design, intended use, and other factors.
Child and Pet urns are generally reasonably simple to find, but searching our a smaller urn with non-pet theme can present difficulties as you sort through a variety of different styles and uses. If you’re looking for something in a specific size, contact us because we can usually make a simple, American-made wood urn to suit your needs.
Cremation jewelry represents the smallest of the small in urn sizing. These are necklaces, rings, or bracelets with tiny vials or other openings which can hold a pinch of ashes. The idea is to ‘keep your loved one close.’ You can find many fine cremation jewelry items online, as well as more affordable and creatively unique items.
6. Where Can I Keep a Cremation Urn?
Aside from the general affordability of cremation, the next most important consideration in why people choose cremation is flexibility. Cremation urns are versatile, and can be buried, stored in a columbarium niche, used for scattering (many of which can be saved as a keepsake afterwards), or kept in your home. Many families find that they use a combination of these options – the urn is kept in the home for many years, then (perhaps when the spouse passes away) buried in a family plot or scattered in a significant location.
If you’re planning on keeping the cremation urn in your home, here are some options which may work for you:
- On a mantle or shelf
- On an end table
- On a bedside table
- On a bedroom vanity
- On a prominent shelf in your walk-in closet
- In a storage closet, drawer, or cuboard
- In the garage, basement, or attic
- Near where you spend most of your time:
- Coffee table near your favorite reading chair
- End table in the TV room
- On the desk in your home office
- On a shelf in the sewing/craft room
7. How do you use an urn?
The basic function of a funeral urn is to hold cremated ashes. But there are also a lot of possibilities for a secondary function for the urn, depending on where it’s going or whether you are scattering the remains.
Here is a brief overview of the different functions of a cremation urn.
Display. This is one of the more popular ones. Typically displayed at the funeral and then at home, this is the reason why there are so many options for beautiful memorial urns.
Burial. Cremation urns are often buried. When this occurs, you will generally need to get an urn burial vault that surrounds and protects the urn when buried. Stone urns, such as marble or granite ones, can serve as their own vaults. Read more about burial vaults here.
Scattering. You can use just about any urn for scattering, since you will be pouring it out in a similar way as you put the remains inside. However, some urns can be awkward for this purpose, so choose a funeral urn designed especially for scattering.
Water burial or water scattering. Water-soluble cremation urns are available for this. These are urns designed specifically for cremation ash burial or “scattering” at sea. This type of urn keeps the remains safe while you travel to the sea and out in the boat. Also, it frees you from the worry of getting cremated remains blown back into your faces from a gust of wind. Simply place the biodegradable urn into the water and say your goodbyes. These types of urns are engineered to float briefly then sink as water seeps in and air escapes. It will rest on the ocean floor until the water breaks down the urn, causing the remains to be “scattered” throughout the sea.
Temporary use. This includes the plastic or cardboard urn that you received from the funeral home with the ashes inside. It can also be a simple box, such as the famous coffee tin from The Big Lebowski or the tea box from the popular show Longmire. You can also consider a nice keepsake box that holds the ashes for a season, then, once buried or scattered, you can use as an heirloom memory chest for small keepsakes, letters, and photos.
Grow a tree. Here is an option that isn’t for everyone, but is steadily growing in popularity. Memorial tree urns have a section to hold cremated remains, and also include seeds that will grow a lovely tree in honor of your loved one’s memory. The urn itself is made out of biodegradable, plant-nourishing growth material. This helps incorporate the cremated remains into the actual growth of the tree. It’s a truly “living memorial.“
8. How is an Urn Used for Scattering Ashes?
Because an urn is simply any container that holds cremated remains (see point #1, above), you can use just about anything you like for scattering the ashes. But there are three main ways that ashes are scattered, and designer scattering urns are available for each method:
- Scattering Urns for Pouring: The ‘typical’ and most common way ashes are scattered is by pouring them out. Whether from a helicopter, on a mountaintop, or at sea from a boat, the idea is the same: use a container that helps you easily transport the ashes to the scattering location, and provides ease of use when pouring out the remains. Here are some scattering urns designed for this. Of course, you can use any urn you like, but ceramic urns can break, wood urns need the screws holding in the base removed, etc.
- Scattering Urns for Water: Water scattering is a popular choice for final disposition, but some families are uncomfortable with the idea of pouring out the remains and chancing that the wind will blow, the ashes will be spilled, and so on. That is why we offer a selection of urns that biodegrade upon contact with water. This makes scattering at sea very simple. All you need to do is fill the biodegradable urn beforehand, then drop or gently set it in the ocean and the water will take care of the rest. These urns are engineered to float for a few minutes, then slowly descend to biodegrade over time on the ocean floor. As the eco-friendly urn wears away, the ashes will be dispersed by the ocean’s natural currents.
- Scattering Urns for Burial: A third option relating to scattering ashes is via ground burial. When cremation urns are buried at a cemetery, the urn is ensconced in a burial vault which protects the urn and keeps nature from interfering with the remains. However, some families like the idea of returning to the earth: “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” The idea is that, when committed to the earth, the person’s remains will not be kept away from nature but actually return to it. So there are biodegradable, eco-friendly urns for this type of burial. These urns biodegrade when buried due to contact with the environment, and ever so slowly, over time, the remains are “scattered” into the ground.
9. Further Resources
We sell cremation urns through our online store, and have done so for the past 15 years. We’ve made this Beginner’s Guide to Cremation Urns to help anyone who is interested in cremation as a final disposition method. Contact us if you can’t find the answer to your questions in this resource, and we’ll do our best to help. If you prefer to read, here are some additional articles which may be of interest:
- Funeral Resources: A Compendium of Links & Articles – All the most helpful articles we’ve written or found elsewhere on the interwebs, dealing in a vast array of funeral and end-of-life topics.
- Should I Buy a Cremation Urn in Advance? – Our answer is: Probably yes. Click to see why – it will save your family some stress and cost.
- Cremation or Burial? – One of the first questions everyone must ask when making final arrangements.
- Cremation FAQ – Extensive list of cremation FAQs via the National Funeral Directors Association.
- 14 Questions to Ask When Considering Cremation – Is cremation right for your situation? Here are some questions to help you figure it out.
- How will the ashes come from the funeral home? – The question everyone didn’t know they needed to ask.
If you prefer to learn through video, here is our channel:
- Urns Northwest YouTube Channel – Mostly urn product demos, but some other useful videos to boot.
To shop our cremation urns, visit our retail website here.