Guide to Burial Urns: Purpose, Cost & Picking a Good One

Ordained Clergywoman, Hospice Chaplain, and Former Hospital Chaplain

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We’ve all likely seen a burial urn at some point in our lives. Whether seen in person or through the media, it has become more commonplace for many families to have a burial urn for their deceased loved ones.

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People choose cremation for all sorts of reasons. It is more environmentally friendly, costs less than a burial, and cremated remains become portable. With a burial urn, a loved one’s remains can travel to a final destination easier than a casket.

When presented with the option to hold your loved one’s remains or even yours, there can be many choices that can make one dizzy. Rest assured though, there may be an urn designed just for you.

What’s a Burial Urn?

When someone dies and a family chooses cremation, the cremated remains are returned in a secure box, with the name of the deceased on it. Once the remains are returned, the family has the opportunity to choose an urn.

A burial urn is a sacred object that holds the cremated remains of someone who has died. The cremated remains are inside a plastic bag. This fairly generic urn can be buried in a cemetery, or taken from the funeral home and placed on the mantel in the living room, or the bedroom closet (I know of families who have done both).

However, there are all sorts of urns one can purchase, make, or use—with a cookie jar as a perfect example.

Where Can You Bury a Burial Urn?

Cemetery regulations usually require families to purchase a vault for the urn to be placed into. These are usually a two-part concrete construction with a box shape and lid that goes over the vault.

After an urn is placed into the vault, the groundskeepers apply a thin, sticky material on the vault edges. Then the lid vault is placed on top of the sticky material, securing the vault lid to the vault itself.

Cremated remains to be placed at a cemetery don’t always go into the ground, though. Many cemeteries around the country have public community mausoleums that are buildings constructed for internment above ground. These mausoleums have niches where cremated remains are placed, with an option for families to place personal items like photographs, medals, rosaries, or notes from loved ones.

Recently, more and more cemeteries are building walls of niches outside as a form of memorialization for cremated remains. These usually have optional outdoor benches to sit on, as well as elements of gardens surrounding them. People can leave flowers at these niches of cremated remains, or bouquets on important days like religious holidays, Memorial Day, or birthdays.

The size and depth of the urn would be a factor in placing the cremated remains of a loved one in either a mausoleum niche or a niche located outside on the cemetery property. These are the times when you want to work closely with a funeral director at the cemetery to make sure that the placing of an urn in its sacred location goes exactly as planned.

How to Pick a Good Burial Urn

Burial urns can be elaborate or very simple. Here are a few of the many burial urns available today, according to Kathleen Blanchette, funeral director and owner at family-owned Forest Funeral Home, in Shelton, Washington.

  • Marble urns: These can be an urn and vault in the same vessel. Cremated remains are poured into an opening in the bottom of the urn, secured, and then up righted. Like almost every other urn available, this one can be memorialized with the name of a loved one on the outside.
  • Metal, Ceramic, Wood, Stone: Most funeral homes have examples of these on display, and each one can be unique and special. “I remember a person came in when his wife died, and he purchased an urn for the mantel. His plan was that when he died, she would be placed in his casket with him,” said Blanchette. “A funeral director makes all things possible for a family who is grieving.”
    • Many commercially made metal urns also have smaller versions for a few tablespoons of cremated remains for family members to individually take home. They are called companion or keepsake urns. These are usually the size of an extra-large chicken egg.
  • Gourd: For burial or for a mantle, a gourd could even be used in green burials.
  • Salt urn: Also for green burial because they are biodegradable but can also be used to place cremated remains in the ocean.
  • Biodegradable urns: Used for placing cremated remains in water, whether it is a favorite lake, or fishing hole, river or ocean.
  • Scattering urns: These tube-shaped urns are made of cardboard and used to scatter, or pour, cremated remains at a specific location, like a favorite hiking trail, or special summer cabin. Funeral homes also offer smaller versions of the large tube, so that if a family will be scattering in many different locations, there is an urn for each scattering.

As with the funeral industry, the construction and unique uses for burial urns continue to evolve and change. Five years ago when a close friend asked me to scatter her cremated remains in the waters at Waikiki Beach in Hawaii after she died, there was no such thing as a scattering urn.

After days of discerning how to honor her wishes, I ended up improvising with a children’s sand bucket as my urn that I carried out to the water break. It worked, but I can appreciate that the scattering urn would have made a huge difference in how much easier my visit to the beach would have been.

How Much Does a Burial Urn Cost?

Prices vary when an urn is purchased at the funeral home. A simple, generic urn retails for $40 and is the least expensive at the Shelton funeral home, said Blanchette. The salt urn retails for $395 and a cherry wood urn retails for $445.

Nowadays, many people are making urns for their own loved ones. I’ve known of people using grandma’s favorite cookie jar as an urn. Or a woodworker family member has built their own urn for cremated remains and personalized it with a favorite scripture. 

A vessel is a vessel, made even more important with a connection with the loved one, said Blanchette.

Burial Urns Are Unique to Everyone

A burial urn is one more way to personalize the life of someone who has died. Whether it stays on the mantel, is buried, or the cremated remains are scattered from an urn, or lay deep on the ocean floor, burial urns help families make decisions about where and how the cremated remains of a loved one travel to their final resting place.

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