Customizing or Decorating Memorial Urns

by J. Malec

Art and painting class taught by Otto Pfeiffer

Photo: Student in an art and painting classes taught by Otto Pfeiffer in New Ulm, Minnesota

Create customized cremation urns for a loved one or pet.

Personalizing a cremation urn for ashes offers many benefits. Decorating an urn transforms an inexpensive vessel into a priceless treasure.

An urn houses the cremains of the departed. The urn, when altered by those who loved its intended occupant, assumes a new and vital presence. For instance, family and friends of the departed can share in signing or decorating a scattering urn, investing it with personal, unique and loving energy.

Such a ritual may help a person process loss. It could be included as a focused activity at a memorial service, or shared between a few friends over the course of months as a transformative way of grieving. Whatever the intent behind this exercise, it’s a great way to transmute the experience around death into a therapeutic, creative outlet.

What urns are ideal for creative customization?

There are memorial urns and biodegradable urns that are well suited for decoration. Certain urn materials make the task of decorating and customizing easier.

  • Softer, warmer materials such as paper, wood or biodegradable polymers offer surfaces that are readily adorned and easy to work on.
  • Paper is easy to alter with permanent markers or acrylic paints. It also easily accepts things glued on.
  • A ceramic-like urn made from vegetable-based gelatin imitates a ceramic finish and provides a surface that is easy to paint in multiple layers if needed.

OneWorld Memorials' white memento biodegradable cremation urn

One example of an ideal urn for decorating is the White Memento Biodegradable Cremation Urn . This biodegradable urn is often used when a water burial is planned. Ira Woods, president of OneWorld Memorials, says that the urn “invites the engagement of friends and family. Using markers, participants write their comments and farewells on the surface. Each Memento cremation urn includes 20 biodegradable note cards to write on and insert through a slit on the top of the urn.”

OneWorld Memorials' biodegradable cremation urn

For an ash scattering, consider the pearl-colored Journey Biodegradable Cremation Urn. This urn features a thick paper envelope that folds around the cremation ashes. The envelope style encapsulates the cremains within an easily compostable container. The outer portion of this urn is a mostly flat surface that is easy to adorn with affectionate notes, doodled imagery or more.

Biodegradable cremation urn with hand painted finish

The Pearl Biodegradable Cremation Urn is an option that is both eco-friendly and could last indefinitely on a shelf. It provides an inviting surface to decorate, and is made of a biodegradable material that imitates ceramic in texture and appearance. There is no need to be intimidated by the task of painting in three dimensions. On this surface, you can paint over with synthetic pigments. It is recommended to do a test patch on the bottom of the urn with your intended medium. This way you can be assured that the medium of choice adheres well. A clear top coat will help protect surface decoration, but will slow down composting when buried. Biodegradable paints could also be used if they will adhere to the glossy surface.

OneWorld Memorials' large bamboo cremation box

If more than surface decoration is desired, a wooden or bamboo box such as the Large Bamboo Box Cremation Urn provides an optimal surface. The bamboo allows holes to be drilled for screw-on embellishments. Nails and tacks can adhere a collage of photographs, and the sky is the limit from there. Personal possessions may be added for authenticity. Symbolic objects can be added that speak to personal history, storytelling or dreams and can evoke the presence of the lost loved one. Sometimes a factory finish just may not do the trick.

Can a memorial urn be created from scratch? 

A cremation urn can be made from scratch from various materials. For many the task is just too daunting at a time of immense sorrow. But if you do feel up to the challenge, seek out resources on art and craft mediums like woodworking, ceramics or weaving as a jumping-off point. Consult with community resources on what it would take to build your own from the bottom up. Turning the pursuit of the perfect D.I.Y. cremation urn into a journey may serve to salve fresh wounds, or assuage old losses, and you may be pleasantly surprised.

J. Malec is a visual artist and writer whose work often deals with themes related to loss and healing. She lives in Minneapolis, and spends much of her time practicing permaculture in the city.

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