Losing a loved one comes with many difficult moments. From planning a funeral to managing an estate, you may find yourself learning many new skills along the way. And if your loved one was cremated, you might need to know how to transfer cremains to an urn.
For some people, handling a loved one’s ashes is too emotionally challenging. They’d rather have someone else perform the transfer for them, and luckily, most funeral homes offer that service. You can also ask for help from friends or family members to accomplish the task.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What Do You Need in Order to Put Ashes in an Urn?
- Steps for Placing Ashes in an Urn
- What Can You Do with the Urn Once It’s Filled With Ashes?
Many people, though, choose to transfer their loved one’s cremains to an urn themselves. Doing so can help you feel connected to your loved one, even after they’re gone, and relieve some of the fear associated with a loved one’s ashes.
If you’ve decided to put your loved one’s ashes in an urn yourself, you can complete the task with just a few household items, and in just a few simple steps. Here’s how.
Tip: If you want to forgo this process entirely, you can have your loved one's ashes transformed into something more solid, instead. Parting Stone uses a unique process to create beautiful, natural stones out of human and pet cremains.
What Do You Need in Order to Put Ashes in an Urn?
First, let’s look at the tools you’ll need to put your loved one’s ashes in an urn:
- Clean workspace. Choose the location where you’ll transfer your loved one’s ashes to the urn. The spot you choose should be well-ventilated, but not drafty. A clean desk or table with ample room to work is ideal.
- Paper bags. Any type of paper you have lying around, like craft paper, newspapers, or paper grocery bags, will do. This will act as a covering for your workspace.
- Face mask. Cremains consist of very fine dust that can easily become airborne. You’ll need a protective face mask to prevent tiny particles from entering your nose and mouth.
- Scissors. You may need to cut open the plastic bag containing the ashes.
- Blunt knife. Sometimes, the crematory returns ashes in a small container rather than a bag. You can open the container’s sealant plug using a blunt knife as a tool.
- Screwdriver. You only need a screwdriver if your urn has a side or bottom panel fastened on with screws. Make sure your screwdriver matches the size and type of the urn’s screws.
- Funnel. You need a wide-mouthed funnel to transfer the ashes into the urn. If you don’t have one, you can make one out of paper.
Steps for Placing Ashes in an Urn
Now let’s look at the steps involved in transferring your loved one’s ashes to the urn of your choosing.
1. Create your workspace
Make sure you have a clean and clear space to work, with enough room for your urn and your tools. Cover the surface with paper, and secure the edges or corners with weights or tape. You may also want to join any overlapping pieces of paper with tape to prevent ashes from slipping underneath.
2. Prepare the urn
This step depends on the type of urn you’re using:
- Wooden box. If you have a box-style urn made of wood, you’ll probably need to unscrew the bottom or side panel to access the inside. Some urn boxes made of wood open from the top instead.
- Marble or stone box. If you have a box urn made of cultured marble or a stone urn, it likely features a compression plug on the bottom. It might be a rubber plug that you can pop out using a blunt knife, or it could be a threaded metal plug that you unscrew to access the inner cavity.
- Vase. Vase-style urns often have a threaded top that you can unscrew. If the top is stuck, it may be sealed with glue. Try running a cotton swab soaked in acetone fingernail polish remover along the edge of the lid to dissolve the sealant.
- Companion urn. Most companion urns are box-shaped, and they open the same way as described above. The only difference is that you’ll find a divider inside once you open the panel. If you have two sets of remains, you’ll put one set of cremains on either side. Alternatively, you can “commingle” the cremains by removing the divider and combining the ashes into a single plastic bag.
If you’re not sure how your urn opens, or if you’re struggling with a screw or gasket, contact the seller for help. If you don’t know the seller, you can take the urn to a funeral home and see if they’ll open it for you.
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3. Decide how you’ll place the ashes
The way you place the cremains in the urn depends on the type of urn, as well as your own preference. You have three options for placing ashes in an urn:
- In a plastic bag. Place the cremains, inside a plastic bag (either the one they came in or a new one), inside the urn. This is usually the best method for placing cremains in an urn, and it’s essential if you have a wooden urn. Otherwise, loose ashes will escape through cracks around the wood panels, no matter how well-crafted the urn is.
- In a plastic container. If the crematory or funeral home gave you the ashes back in a plastic box, you can leave the ashes there and place the small box into a larger box urn. This only works if you’re using an urn where a full panel can be removed.
- Loose in the urn. Empty the cremains from the plastic bag or temporary container into the urn, loose. This method isn’t ideal, but it is possible if you have a vase urn or a marble or stone box urn. You can’t place loose ashes in a wooden urn.
4. Put on some protection
Human cremains are sterile, so you shouldn’t be afraid of handling them. But the fine dust can float around and enter your nasal cavity if you don’t wear a protective mask. You may also want to wash your hands before and after the process.
5. If necessary, transfer the ashes to a plastic bag
If the cremains came in a plastic bag, which they often do, you can skip this step. If there’s a problem with the bag, though, you might choose to transfer the ashes to a new, more durable replacement.
And if your loved one’s ashes came in a plastic box container that doesn’t fit inside your urn, you’ll need to transfer them to a bag.
If you want to purchase a new bag for cremains, you can simply buy a durable, sealable polypropylene bag at a craft store. Or you can buy bags specially made for cremains, many of which come with an inner plastic liner and an outer velvet pouch.
Here’s how to transfer ashes from one bag to a new one, or from a box to a bag:
- Use your urn as a base. Especially if you have a vase urn, you can use the container to your advantage when transferring the ashes. Place the bag inside the urn, with the outer edges folded over the rim of the urn’s opening.
- Make sure the bag is secured. Secure it in place with a couple of small pieces of tape, or have someone else hold the bag in place. If the opening of your urn is larger than the opening of your bag, find a container (like a tall glass or a bottle), and use that instead.
- Snip the corner of the original bag. If you’re transferring the cremains from one plastic bag to another, you can snip off a small piece of the original bag’s corner. This will create a funnel for the ashes to flow through cleanly.
- Use a funnel. If you’re transferring the cremains from a plastic container to the bag, you’ll need a funnel. As mentioned above, you can make one out of paper if you don’t own one already. Position the funnel above the opening of the plastic bag, and you’re ready to pour.
- Seal the bag. Tie the bag securely closed, use a twist tie, or seal the bag in another way.
6. Alternatively, pour the ashes into the urn
If you decided to place the ashes loose in the urn, use your funnel or snip a corner off your plastic bag the same way as described above. Pour the ashes into your container slowly to avoid causing the dust to float into the air.
7. Place the bag in the urn
If you now have the cremains in a bag, you can place them in the urn. Make sure the top faces the top of the urn. Then, you can close your urn by tapping or screwing the gasket back into place or fastening the panel back onto the box.
You can seal an urn closed with epoxy or quick-setting glue, but it’s not necessary or recommended. You or another family member may want to access the ashes at a later date.
What Can You Do with the Urn Once It’s Filled With Ashes?
Once you have an urn filled with ashes, you might not know what to do with it. Those are your loved one’s remains inside, so you want to put the urn somewhere special. Here are some ideas for what you can do with an urn once it’s filled with ashes to help you decide.
- Add in some mementos or notes. An urn doesn’t have to hold only ashes. You can place small mementos inside, like a wedding ring, or notes you wrote to the deceased.
- Bury the urn. An alternative to keeping the urn at home is to bury the urn. This may be an ideal option if your family has a familial plot in the cemetery, or if the person’s spouse was previously buried.
- Place it in a columbarium. A relatively unusual choice these days is to place the urn in a columbarium. A columbarium is an above-ground tomb that houses cremains in niches, and they’re present at some cemeteries and places of worship.
- Keep the urn. Of course, you can keep the urn at home or give it to another family member to keep. The place you keep the urn doesn’t have to be glamorous or overly sacred. You can keep it somewhere that’s close to you, like a bedside table, or somewhere meaningful to the deceased, like a kitchen window or bookshelf.
Alternatives to Urns
These days, you have countless options when it comes to dealing with a loved one’s ashes. You can place them in an urn and keep them somewhere special, or you can scatter them at sea. You could divide the ashes and give some to each family member, or you could create cremation jewelry to wear every day.
Ultimately, what you do with a loved one’s ashes depends on what you’re comfortable with, and most of all, their final wishes.
- “How to place cremains into a cremation urn.” Heartland Cremation and Burial Society. 10 March 2015. heartlandcremation.com/blog/how-to-place-cremains-into-a-cremation-urn/