Transferring Ashes into an Urn
by Kristal Borjas June 04, 2021 7 min read
The cremated remains of a loved one are nearly sacred for families - they sit enshrined in a cremation urn, delicate yet durable in their container. Often, families are even hesitant to handle or transfer the cremated ashes for fear of them escaping or spilling unexpectedly. But transferring them from their temporary container to a permanent one is easier than most think.
This guide explores what your options are for getting your loved one's cremated ashes out of the temporary urn and into your sentimental, hand-picked cremation urn to lovingly display in your home or another meaningful location.
What to Expect When Receiving Ashes
Often, families aren’t even aware they need to transfer ashes. It’s important to remember two things in particular if you’re waiting to receive the cremated remains of a loved one. First, the cremated remains don’t typically arrive in the cremation urn you ordered, even if the urn is coming from the same crematorium that you purchased a permanent urn through.
Typically, the ashes will arrive in a temporary storage container. This is usually a small cardboard box, plain and simple looking. This is only for the time being and a way to not waste resources with a temporary container.
The second thing to know when you're waiting for cremated remains is that the ashes are not placed loosely into the cremation container. The ideal way to transport the temporary box is to have the ashes themselves inside a tightly packed and sealed plastic bag. This plastic bag filled with ashes is what most crematoriums use to deliver the cremated remains.
It's important to note that for many individuals, they are content with keeping the cremated ashes inside the plastic bag, which is then placed inside the permanent urn. Just because you are transferring the ashes from a temporary container into a permanent one doesn’t necessarily mean they have to be removed from the bag. Do not feel obligated to open the bag simply because the permanent urn has arrived.
We strongly encourage you to read through the entire article before starting the process, as there are not only multiple points to consider but a few different ways to complete the process based on what type of urn you have. After reading the entire article, decide which approach is best for you.
The Importance of Carefully Transferring Ashes
First of all, the temporary box used to deliver the cremated remains should only be used as that - temporarily. The remains should not remain for a substantial amount of time in the box since it is a material that will degrade fairly quickly over time and is significantly vulnerable to the elements. A humid atmosphere or a small water spill can quickly cause the cardboard to deteriorate, which can expose the ashes inside.
Another reason as to why it’s important to carefully transfer the ashes is because when one is not careful, the cremated remains can become messy, exposed, and can be lost permanently. To best preserve the ashes, the plastic bags they’re placed in are tightly packed. If you try to simply tear the bag open, it’s highly likely the bag will over-tear, causing a disastrous spread of precious remains. It’s also possible there’s some slight pressure build-up inside the bag, which means even if you carefully cut the bag open, you might experience a tuft of ash escaping from the bag.
Since cremated remains are typically a very fine powder, they spread easily into the air, stick to wet surfaces and become irretrievable, and can easily become ground up in carpets and other floorings. This is why it's important to prep your space prior to transferring ashes and why it's a good idea to follow the recommended steps below when handling ashes.
How to Transfer Cremains to the Permanent Urn
If you’re planning to transfer the cremated remains from the container you received from the crematorium into the memorial urn you’ve carefully selected for a loved one, here are five simple steps to ensure a smooth transfer.
Make sure your workspace is prepared.
This can be a delicate and sensitive process, so make sure you’ve taken care to ensure you’re transferring the ashes in a way that means most of them stay where they’re supposed to be.
- Turn off ceiling fans or air conditioning systems: Turning off fans and air conditioners eliminates the possibility that a fan will swing and blow ashes into the air. You do not want to have the air blowing and scattering ashes within your home.
- Close windows to the outside: Even the slightest gust of wind can cause a significant amount of ashes to distribute.
- Make sure the area is well-lit: Lighting is just going to make your job easier, so the better the lighting is where you plan to work, the better it is for you to work in.
- Lay down newspaper where you’ll be working: There's likely going to be some minor, minuscule spillage even with the precautions you're taking. Plus, even something as simple as an unexpected sneeze can cause a flurry of ashes to take flight. The newspaper makes it easy to collect any stray bits of ashes that have been knocked over. Newspaper is ideal for working on, as opposed to plastic or other materials that might be a bit stickier, making it more difficult to scoop or clean up any spillage.
- Make sure pets or small children aren’t within reach: The last thing you want is a small hand grabbing the newspaper or a cat jumping onto the table with exposed ashes.
Set out and open both the temporary cremation urn and the permanent cremation urn.
- Practice opening and closing the permanent urn: Some cremation urns have small clasps, others have latches, some simply screw on – there’s plenty of ways for them to close. Some don’t even open at the top but have a base opening instead. It’s best practice to make sure you know how to open and close the urn before placing the ashes inside. If it’s more difficult, you want to know the trick for closing it before you’ve placed those ashes into the urn, making it more difficult and stressful.
- Place the permanent urn on a stable surface: Make sure you don't set the cremation urn on top of any uneven areas of the table since you can't see it well underneath the newspaper. Uneven surfaces can lead to spillage and accidents.
- Place them close to you but avoid the edge of the table: They should be centered, level, easily within reach, and accessible to you. If you are dividing the ashes among multiple keepsake cremation urns to share with other family members, have those all open as well.
Place the plastic bag next to the urn or inside of it if the mouth of the urn is wide enough.
- Do not yet open the bag: Figure out the best positioning for the bag before you decide to open the bag and release the ashes.
- If the mouth of the cremation urn is on the wider side, place the unopened bag inside of it: This allows for the easiest transfer of ashes from bag to urn without needing to pour anything directly into the cremation urn.
- If the bag doesn’t fit, consider finding a funnel: You don’t have to have a funnel, but if the mouth of the urn is on the smaller side, it will make it easier to have a targeted approach at pouring the cremated remains inside.
Pour the cremated remains into the permanent urn.
- With a wide-mouthed urn: If you have a wide-mouthed urn, position the bag inside the cremation urn, and using a sharp blade, slice open the bag about one to two inches thick, with criss-cross markings to create an x-shaped hole in the bag. Then, using your fingers or a pair of tweezers or pliers (whichever best fits), slowly pull the plastic bag out of the urn, allowing the ashes to slowly fall out of the bag and into the urn as you pull it out. You may need to use two hands to gently shake the bag to fully empty the remains into the container. For larger portions of ashes, this may not be the best approach, and you may want to simply consider using the next approach.
- With a narrow mouth or larger amount of ashes: Place a funnel over the opening of the cremation urn. Take the bag of ashes, and loosen the zip tie enclosure. Do this gently to prevent spillage or loose ashes from escaping. If the bag is taped shut, you will need to very carefully slice a small opening in one of the corners of the bag. Once the opening has been made, use one hand to stabilize the cremation urn, so it doesn't tip over, and use the other to slowly pour the ashes into the funnel. You may benefit from asking someone to help you so they can use two hands to stabilize, and you have two hands to be more careful in pouring the ashes out.
Return any ash spillage into the cremation urn.
- Carefully move the cremation urn to a stable surface so you can pick up the newspaper: Make sure you set the urn on a flat surface, and make sure no edges of the newspaper are sitting underneath the urn for when you pick the newspaper up.
- Carefully funnel the newspaper, so the spilled ashes fall back into the cremation urn.
Carefully close the cremation urn lid.
- Use both hands to slowly center the lid: If the lid isn't centered, it won't go on straight, meaning it won't close entirely. Make sure the ridges are aligned, and check for full closure around the entire ring of the urn. This means it is well-sealed, and the ashes are protected.
A Long-Lasting Memorial
Cremation urns that are well made are designed to last for many years, meaning that once you’ve been able to carefully place those cremated remains into the urn, your next step is to find a permanent resting place for your loved one.
This differs for most families, and while some prefer to keep the cremation urns displayed within their home, others opt for the burial of the urn at a cemetery, as one would do with a casket. Other families prefer to place them permanently in a mausoleum or columbarium where they can be visited. Some families prefer to share the ashes, with multiple members each receiving a small portion of ashes to display within the home. Discuss with your loved ones and consult the deceased individual's will and wishes to decide the best approach.
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