What Are Cremains? Definition + Key Facts


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Let’s face it — even though cremation has gained popularity in the United States, the cremation process isn’t exactly a favorite topic to some. Here’s an overview of cremains, what they are, what they look like, and what most families do with them to honor their loved ones.

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Even though this is might not be your favorite topic, kudos to you for learning more about cremation. Whether you choose your own end-of-life plans or follow the wishes of your loved one, it’s helpful to arm yourself with as much information as possible about the cremation process.

What Are Cremains? 

Cremains are a person’s cremated remains but it’s important that you realize that the “ashes” you receive contain more than the remains of your loved one.

Although this article is not meant to describe the cremation process, it’s a good idea to have a basic understanding to know what cremains include. 

Unless the body will be made available for viewing at a visitation or service at a later date, the cremated body is not typically embalmed. 

A direct cremation occurs when the body is taken from the place of death to the crematorium. The body is typically dressed in whatever your loved one was wearing at the time of death at the time of cremation.

Before the body is cremated, jewelry and medical devices are removed. The body is placed in a rigid container designed for cremation. (Federal law says funeral providers must allow you to buy an inexpensive cremation container rather than purchasing an expensive casket.)

The cremains that you receive will include the remains of your loved one, his or her clothing, and the inexpensive container.

» MORE: Grief can be lonely. Create space for your community to share memories and tributes with a free online memorial from Cake.

What Do Cremains Look Like? 

Cremains look like coarse, gray sand. The cremains typically weigh between three to seven pounds. There should be no large fragments within the cremains. Any larger particles left after the cremation process are usually pulverized so they blend in with the rest of the remains.

Who Usually Receives Cremains After Cremation?

Most of the time, the person who signs the contract with the funeral home is the one who receives the cremains.

Unfortunately, there are times when the process may not be so cut and dried. You may want to consult your lawyer if you think that there may be several people who feel like they have claims to the cremains. Ask if there are any specific laws on cremation ownership in your state.

If you are worried that another person close to the deceased will try to gain access to the cremains, you may ask the funeral home about their process for distributing the remains. You may request that the person who picks up the cremains shows a form of identification.

If no agreement can be made regarding the ownership of the cremains, you may consider dividing the ashes after cremation. This may not be a perfect solution, but it may at least eliminate any need for future communication with a difficult person. 

If you don’t provide an urn to the funeral home, the cremains will be placed in a strong plastic bag and placed in a sturdy cardboard container. You will also be given paperwork detailing the name of the individual whose cremains you are receiving. 

What Do People Do With a Loved One’s Cremains?

Whole industries have been created to assist people with the dispersal or containment of cremains. Here are some ideas on what to do with the cremains of your loved one. 

Bury the cremains in a cemetery plot

Even if your loved one wished to be cremated, he or she could still be memorialized at a cemetery with a headstone. The headstone may simply be a monument instead of a marker showing where the body or cremains have been placed or the cremains may be buried by the headstone.

» MORE: An online memorial is a perfect ending to honor and celebrate someone's life. Create one for free.

Place the cremains in a columbarium niche

The cemetery near you may have a columbarium wall or garden wall. Within this wall are small “niches” that will hold your loved one’s cremains. The benefit of placing cremains in a columbarium niche is that they will have an eternal home. It will also provide a place for friends and family members to visit, similar to a cemetery plot. 

Before purchasing an urn for your loved one’s cremains, make sure it meets the height and width requirement for the columbarium niche.

Scatter the cremains in a cremation garden

Cremation gardens are gaining in popularity. You pay a fee and you’re given the right to scatter your loved one’s cremains within the grounds of a beautiful garden.

Often, survivors are allowed to purchase a memorial that will stay on the grounds. A cremation garden appeals to people who prefer “scattering,” as well as people who wish to have a place to visit to reflect on the life of their loved one.

Scatter the cremains at a park or public land

Check with your state and local laws on whether you can legally scatter your loved one’s ashes at a park near you.

Do not assume that you will not get caught. It’s better to have permission rather than have a meaningful moment interrupted by a member of the law enforcement community.

Keep the cremains in an urn at home

Even if you don’t have any acquaintances with an urn on their mantlepiece, you will have seen this practice done on film and TV. Unlike what is depicted on TV, the cremains are sealed in an urn that cannot be easily opened.

Some families find comfort in having the cremains of their loved ones in the family home. Keep in mind that the Vatican decreed that keeping cremains in a residence is forbidden for those who follow the Catholic faith.

Tip: If you're looking for something very unique (think a game, their motorcycle, or instrument of choice), you can custom order an urn from a store like Foreverence. You submit a design idea or sketch, then the company designs and 3D prints your urn, so you get a 100% unique container.

» MORE: Online obituary that is 100% free. Honor a loved one beyond a newspaper.

Have a piece of artwork created with the cremains

If you don’t like the idea of having an urn full of cremains in your home, you may want to hire an artisan to create a piece of glass artwork using the cremains of your loved one.

One peek at a website will reveal a plethora of styles, sizes, and colors from which to choose. You can have the artist create a beautiful paperweight, suncatcher, glass ornament, or even a piece of jewelry with a memorial diamond. Some companies, like Eterneva, create lab-grown diamonds and allow you to pick from several cuts and colors for your gemstone.

Place the cremains at the base of a newly planted tree

Some people like the idea of “returning to nature” after death. If this describes your loved one, you may consider planting a tree and placing his or her cremains at the roots. This is a form of scattering and you may need to ask for permission if it’s done on land not owned by you. 

If you choose to do this on private property, consider how you will feel when you or another family member does not own that land. If you don’t like the idea of not being able to visit that particular tree in the future, you may want to plant it in a more public space. 

Have your loved one’s cremains made into fireworks

It may be hard to believe, but you can even have your loved one’s cremains placed inside a firework. In one beautiful explosion, your loved one’s cremains will be scattered for eternity.

An Additional Note Regarding Cremains

Your family members may have varying viewpoints on the appropriate way to handle your loved one’s cremains. You may be comfortable with using your mom’s cremains to make several pieces of jewelry but your sister may feel uncomfortable with the idea. Your brother may think it’s silly to spend money to scatter cremains in a cremation garden but you may find comfort knowing you will always have a place to visit your loved one. 

It’s a good idea to come up with a compromise over the appropriate way to handle your loved one’s cremains. After all, how sad would your mom be to see siblings fight over how her body is dispersed?  

To keep conflict from forming in your own family, you may want to consider creating a specific end-of-life plan. If you want your body to be cremated, make sure you also share what you would like your family members to do with your cremains. 


  1. “Cremains.”Lexico. www.lexico.com/en/definition/cremains

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