Trying to coordinate travel and funeral plans is a painful process. It’s also complicated. These days, airport security is on lockdown. With threats of terrorism and violence, it’s for a good reason. Under current Transporation Security Administration (TSA) regulations, it’s hard to figure out what size toothpaste you’re allowed. What are you supposed to do when you need to transport remains?
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Rules for Flying with Cremated Remains
- Rules for Driving, Boating, or Taking Cremated Remains Internationally
- Tips for Securely Traveling with Your Cremains
This situation is not as unique as you might think. Families are more spread out than ever, so traveling with remains is becoming a common occurrence.
What if your grandmother lives in Spain, and you live in the US? She may want to be buried near you, her sole surviving family. If that’s the case, traveling with remains is a tricky process. If your loved one has decided to be cremated travel is a simpler process. Traveling with an urn is much easier than transporting human remains.
There are still several rules governing the process, though. If you’re planning to travel internationally with cremains, make sure you know the rules.
Rules for Flying with Cremated Remains
One of the top rules for flying with cremated remains is that there cannot be any fluid involved. The spread of disease is too risky for airport officials to allow. Dry ashes will make your journey much easier. While this is the most important rule, there are others.
You can fly with cremated remains if…
You checked the embassy's website or contacted them directly. Contacting the embassy in the country you’re traveling to can save you a lot of headaches. Whether you give them a call or check their website, you can get the information you need. They’ll provide a comprehensive overview of local laws. They also give you the necessary forms to make your travel as easy as possible.
You have a travel-worthy container or urn. It’s recommended that you choose an urn with tough, lightweight material for best travel.
This option is best for two reasons. For one, a breakable container is a recipe for disaster. Luggage can be handled roughly, and a glass or ceramic container could shatter. A thick container that’s hard to view via an X-ray is also discouraged. If an X-ray can’t produce a clear image, TSA officers won’t let you board a plane with your container.
You have the necessary documents. These should include a death certificate and a certificate of cremation. Not having these papers can slow you down, or even prevent you from traveling.
Consider attaching them to the container. Or you can carry the documents with you. According to the TSA, both options are allowed. There’s no law that says you must attach these documents to an urn. But it can make things more convenient. This is especially true if your bag sets off an alarm and it has to be opened.
You can’t fly with cremated remains if…
You don’t have a death certificate in English. When flying within the US, an English death certificate is mandatory. A translation of the certificate, from the original language into English, is also sufficient. If you have neither, officials can’t let you through security to board the plane.
The container isn’t leakproof. One of the cardinal rules for transporting human remains is that there be no fluid. Any sort of body fluid could cause disease and germs to spread.
The person died of a quarantinable, communicable disease. If a disease can spread through the remains you’re bringing, it’s too dangerous to allow in a foreign country. There are caveats, of course. If the remains are thoroughly cremated, they may be allowed, since there are no germs left. If such a disease was involved, be sure to check with officials on the proper way to proceed.
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Rules for Driving, Boating, or Taking Cremated Remains Internationally
Traveling internationally with remains is tricky. Since each country has different laws, it’s impossible to produce a one size fits all scenario. When it comes to traveling internationally with cremated remains, do your research.
The best place to start is by contacting an embassy in the country. Working with the local embassy and the embassy for the country you need to bring the remains to is a good idea. In the digital age, you may not need to contact them. All the information you need is likely available on their website.
If you have questions or uncertainties, though, it’s best to call. When you contact the embassy, you’ll be provided with all the necessary forms. In some countries, you’ll have to involve a lawyer or a professional funeral director. It can take weeks to get everything you need to travel with cremated remains. So make sure you give yourself plenty of time.
You can travel with cremated remains if…
The country allows you to be responsible for transport. In some countries, you’re not allowed to transport remains at all. This is true even if they’re cremated. Licensed funeral directors are the only ones allowed to coordinate the process.
You have filled out the proper forms. Requesting forms from an embassy allows you to familiarize yourself with the steps.
You can’t travel with cremated remains if…
It’s an unlabeled package. Cremated remains aren’t an ordinary package. And you shouldn’t treat them as such. Labeling them and using the appropriate box is crucial.
A funeral director or attorney must be involved. Jumping through hoops to transport remains can be frustrating. If you need a funeral director to transport remains, hire them. If you need signatures from legal counsel, make sure you get them. Having those signatures will make things smoother.
You haven’t requested and filled out forms from the local embassy. Some people are game to try transporting cremated remains without any accountability. They believe their bags won’t get searched. Or just hope that no one is paying attention. You might get lucky and not be stopped. But the risk isn’t worth it. What if your loved one’s remains get lost or mishandled?
Tips for Securely Traveling with Your Cremains
We’ve all heard horror stories. Remains get spilled or lost. To help reduce accidents, the TSA has developed tips for secure travel with cremains.
Tip 1: Don't open the urn
The TSA states on their site that they will never open an urn. This is a nod of respect to the deceased’s ashes. Even if the passenger gives permission, your TSA officer will not open the container.
Tip 2: Use an urn made of lightweight materials
Yet, officers can’t allow potentially hazardous material onto airplanes. They must identify what is present in each container brought aboard. TSA officers do this with X-rays. It’s sometimes hard to pick up items on the X-ray screen. Ceramic urns, in particular, generate a difficult-to-identify image. If officers can’t identify the contents of the urn through an X-ray, they will reject it. And it won't be allowed on an airplane.
To avoid this scenario, the TSA suggests choosing lightweight materials for your urn. If you want to buy a fancy urn, do it after you reach your destination. When it comes to transport, the TSA recommends either wood or plastic.
Tip 3: Store cremains in a bag inside of the urn
Storing ashes loose in an urn isn’t recommended, either. Storing them in a heavyweight bag inside the urn will help ease your mind. This will prevent spills when it comes to luggage being transported.
Tip 4: Take your ashes in your carry-on
The TSA also suggests that you take ashes in a carry-on bag. This ensures that the urn is on or near your person at all times. A lot of travelers have horror stories of employees losing or mishandling luggage. The stakes are high with this baggage. Avoiding the rough journey through conveyor belts and baggage holds is a good idea.
The TSA also recommends checking with your specific airline before traveling. Some have unique rules for traveling with cremains.
Traveling Safely with Cremains
This sort of journey is painful to take. Laying someone to rest, in a place they loved, can be a healing experience. It still feels very final, though. If you’re going to a foreign country to scatter ashes, you may not have a support network there. This only makes it harder.
If you’re anxious about traveling internationally with cremains, don’t be. People do it all the time. Airlines expect this and have provided systems to handle it. International laws and embassies, are available to answer any questions you have. Consulting with the proper authorities and planning will make your journey seamless.
The opportunity to scatter your loved one's ashes is a great one—just make sure you check local laws for scattering ashes. Putting them to rest in a beloved place is a way to honor their legacy.
- “Human Remains Importation.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC, 9 April 2019, www.cdc.gov/importation/human-remains.html
- Burns, Bob. “Ways to Travel with Cremated Remains.” Transportation Security Administration, Department of Homeland Security, July 2018, www.tsa.gov/blog/2018/07/10/ways-travel-cremated-remains