How to Open an Unsealed or Sealed Urn: Step-By-Step

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Making decisions after a loved one dies is incredibly difficult, especially if the death was unexpected. You may have never had a conversation with your loved one regarding end-of-life wishes, and this may leave you feeling too overwhelmed to make immediate plans. 

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After time passes, you may decide that the best way to honor your loved one would be to scatter his ashes where he found meaning during his life. But as you look at the sealed urn that is sitting on your mantle, you hesitate. You know that the crematorium employees secured the urn's lid, so you are unsure whether it can be opened. You don't like the idea of breaking an urn to retrieve the cremains inside, but you see no other option. 

Let us help you with this scenario. Here are instructions and steps to consider when opening an urn that holds the cremated remains of someone you love.

Tip: Have you considered what you're going to do with the ashes after you open the urn? You can choose to turn them into a memorial diamond with Eterneva, replace the current turn with a custom urn from Foreverence, or another unique project. 

Is it OK to Open an Urn?

Yes, it is generally okay to open an urn. Most say that cremated remains are sterile, so you shouldn't have to worry about your health or safety from opening an urn. There are no legal reasons why an urn can't be opened either unless there is a question of who legally owns the cremains. 

Since everyone operates under his own moral code, we cannot tell you whether it is appropriate or disrespectful to open an urn entirely out of curiosity or to show others the cremains. That’s up to you. Just remember that the remains of a human being are inside the container. Try not to distance yourself from that reality. 

Here are what some people would consider valid reasons for opening an urn. 

Scattering 

It may have taken you months to decide what to do with your loved one's cremation ashes. After careful consideration, you may have decided to take the ashes off the coast of Florida for a scattering ceremony. Of course, you will need to take the cremains out of the urn to complete this process.

If you are working under time constraints during the scattering (or other people are in attendance), make sure the urn can be easily opened. You don't want to take away from the solemnity of the occasion by struggling with an unexpected seal. 

Making something from the cremains

You may not have been aware at the time of your loved one's death that there are a lot of creative things to do with your loved one's cremains.

Part of the cremains may be used to make a diamond using a service like Eterneva or a piece of glass artwork. You could insert some of your loved one's ashes in a specially-made record album that records your loved one talking or singing. You can also have a bit of the cremains mixed with tattoo ink and used for a commemorative tattoo.

Dividing the cremains

Perhaps several members of your family would like to keep the cremains of your loved one. Instead of arguing over who owns the cremains, some families choose to divide them. 

You may seek the assistance of the funeral home or crematorium when dividing ashes after cremation. Although there is no reason that you or a member of your family couldn't complete the process, you may feel more comfortable having a professional do it. 

Transferring the cremains to a different urn

Let’s say your mom's cremains were held in a temporary urn. You would like to transfer the ashes to a permanent urn for mom. Or maybe the current urn will not fit into the columbarium niche that you purchased and you need to transfer them to a smaller container.

Learn how to open the urn so the transfer process can take place. 

What Happens if You Open an Urn?

When you open an urn holding the cremated remains of a person or animal, you will likely find one of two things.

  1. You may find that the cremains were first placed in a plastic bag before going into the urn, or you may see that the cremated remains are loose within the urn. It may depend on what type of urn is used. 
  2. If the urn had previously been sealed with silicone or adhesive, opening it will make the urn less secure. You can reseal the lid of the urn with clear silicone or wax if you would like to secure it again after it has been opened. 

How to Open a Sealed Urn

Before we tell you the steps of opening a sealed urn, let's define what "sealed" means. A sealed urn has a lid (secured or unsecured with threads or screws) held in place with silicone, wax, or some sort of adhesive. 

1. Determine what type of seal is holding the lid in place 

You may see that the urn's lid can be unscrewed from the base. If it seems as if the lid does not come off after applying gentle pressure, this may mean that a silicone, wax, or another type of adhesive is sealing the urn.

2. Soak a cotton swab in fingernail polish remover or epoxy solvent and run the swab's tip along the sealed portion of the urn

You may have to repeat this process several times. 

3. Pry the lid off gently

If adhesive was used as a seal, you might have to wiggle the lid several times to loosen it from the glue. You may find that a flathead screwdriver may help the process, but be careful not to damage the urn when using it. 

4. Seek the help of a professional at a crematorium

Those working at a crematorium have more experience with urns than anyone else. If you worry about damaging the urn (or losing some of the cremains) in your attempt to open it, you may consider seeking assistance. 

Of course, having someone at the crematorium work on unsealing the urn does not mean that the receptacle will not be damaged when it is open. Still, the experience may not be as traumatic for someone who works with cremation remains daily.

How to Open an Unsealed Urn

An unsealed urn does not have an adhesive, wax, or silicone seal around the lid's edge. An unsealed urn's lid may still be held in place with screws. An unsealed urn may also be opened by unscrewing the top.

1. Make sure your work surface is solid and free of debris 

Cremains are the consistency of coarse sand. While some cremains are first placed in a plastic bag before being placed in the urn, other cremains may have been placed directly into the receptacle.

Make sure you work in a location that does not have a breeze. While cremains are safe for handling, you may want to wear plastic gloves if you do not wish to make any contact with the ashes.

2. Examine the urn to discover how it can be opened

Wooden urns are often opened by unscrewing the base off the bottom. You will need a screwdriver or drill to remove the screws before opening the urn.

Stone urns often have hidden screw-off plugs hidden at the base of the urn. Usually, these plugs can be removed without any special tools.

Traditional-shaped curved urns may have a screw-on top. They may also be sealed with a gasket. Carefully examine the top to see if you can determine the closure method. 

3. Open the urn with care

Most urns are relatively durable. While you may feel uncomfortable using force to open the urn, it may be necessary. 

The Emotions of Handling Cremains

If you are uncomfortable with the idea of handling the cremated remains of your loved one, you’re not alone. It's hard to imagine the person who was once so alive and vibrant reduced to a few pounds of sand-like material. 

If you need to open your loved one's urn for scattering or extract some cremains for a project, seek a good friend's assistance. Most people want to support their friends through difficult times but may not know how to do it. Your friend may appreciate having a specific job. 

If the urn proves challenging to open, do not hesitate to seek the assistance of a professional at a funeral home or crematorium. Even if you’re charged you for their time, it will be worth having the professional open the urn to ease your mind.

If you're looking for more ideas on what to do with cremation ashes, read our guides on cremation jewelry and what you can do with pet ashes.

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