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Choosing a Burial Cremation Urn

by Maggie Thompson

Burial cremation urns

Image* by Dennis Jarvis. Porta Romana Necropolis that contains funerary beds with urns, and columbarium niches dating back to the 2nd and 1st centuries BC.

Burial urns, or funeral urns, are designed to hold ashes in a manner that is respectful and aesthetically pleasing. The urn is often a focal point, such as during traditional religious funeral services, wakes and visitations. Following these ceremonies, the urn can be buried in a cemetery with graveside burial rites and a headstone, in the same manner that a casket is buried. Many cemeteries and churches also have memorial gardens or other areas specifically designed for burial of cremation urns.

Burial cremation urns come in a variety of materials such as stone, metal, wood, marble, ceramic, and porcelain. Urns for green burials or water burials are made from biodegradable substances that are environmentally safe.

Can I be cremated and still have a traditional burial?

This is a common question when considering end-of-life decisions. The answer is yes. As more and more people are choosing cremation**, more burial urns are available. It’s more common today than ever to request a traditional graveside service and be interred in a family cemetery plot.

Why choose burial after cremation?

Humans have buried their dead for over 100,000 years to honor the deceased in a reverent way. Burial also addressed the practical issues of preventing the odor of decay and sparing families from witnessing the bodily decomposition of loved ones. In many cultures, burial is seen as a necessary step for the deceased to enter the afterlife or to give back to the cycle of life. Over the ages, burial traditions have evolved, reflecting religious and cultural practices, environmental concerns, and health and sanitation issues.

What are traditional burial urns made from? Do I need an urn vault?

Cremation urns for interment are commonly made of wood, brass, marble, stone, and ceramic. Some cemeteries and memorial gardens require urns be placed in a burial urn vault, which has a reinforced outer structure that protects the urn against moisture and the weight of the earth. Without a vault, the urn may collapse over time, which can result in a sunken depression of the ground surface. A durable urn of marble or stone will often be strong enough to meet compression testing requirements, in which case a vault may not be needed. For clarification, check the policies of the cemetery you wish to use. Keep in mind that a ceramic urn is more fragile and prone to the effect of nature’s elements.

If you would like an urn made of a fortified material, consider urns made of metal, marble or stone. Here’s an example of each:

What are eco-friendly burial urns made of?

Eco-friendly urns are made to naturally disintegrate wherever the urn is buried. Whether in the ground or in water, the urn and ashes are gently dispersed to become one with nature.

Burial urns for land are made of environmentally safe materials such as:

  • recycled paper,
  • rock salt,
  • plant-based materials,
  • various wood products including sawdust, bamboo, palm leaf and tree bark,
  • arboform (often referred to as liquid wood, made from the byproducts of the cellulose pulping process),
  • vegetable-based gelatin,
  • and sand.

    A few examples of biodegradable land burial urns include:

    • Ashes can be planted with a tree, such as the Bios Urn, with maple, oak, empress or pine tree seeds, vermiculite, coconut shells, compacted peat, and planting instructions. This green burial urn has two capsules – a lower capsule is a container for ashes; the upper capsule is a sealed unit to ensure proper seed growth.
    • Sleek, white arboform urns come with a choice of scenes on a band around the urn’s shoulder, such as illustrations of roses, a sunset, a biker, or patriotic images. The Dove Biodegradable urn provides an example of this option.
    • The biodegradable acorn cremation urn is very popular for land burial.  We found it is used quite a bit in the United Kingdom where there are designated parks to bury cremated remains in certified green, biodegradable urns.

    Burial urns for water can be made of:

    • salt,
    • sand,
    • handcrafted paper or recycled paper that degrade after being fully immersed.

      A few examples of biodegradable water burial urns include:

      • The Himalayan Salt Urn is hand carved from individual salt blocks, each with unique marbled pale coral coloring. It dissolves within 4 hours when submerged.
      • The sand biodegradable cremation urn is held together with gelatin and sinks gracefully.
      • A simple envelope shaped urn of mulberry paper comes in several colors. It will float briefly, then sink.
      • The seashell white biodegradable cremation urn is handcrafted using salt water and natural components. It dissolves within 5 minutes after submersion.

      Are there different sizes of cremation urns?

      Most urns come in small, medium, and large sizes. However, many biodegradable cremation urns are one size only. The product description will state how many cubic inches of cremains the urn can accommodate. General guidelines allow 1 cubic inch per 1 pound of human weight. A person who weighed 200 lbs. would need an urn with 200 cubic inches of capacity.

      Companion urns are an option for individuals who wish to be buried with a loved one’s ashes.

      Pet cremation urns are also sized according to your pet’s weight.

       What if I want to keep some of the ashes at home?

      • Mini urns, identical to larger urns, are small urns for ashes and a popular choice to have in the home.
      • Cremation jewelry, such as pendants or bracelets, offers a personal way to remember a loved one.
      • Other cremation keepsakes include memory lamps, ashes into glass art, photo frames, candleholders, and keepsake hearts.

      You can rest assured knowing that there are many burial cremation urn options for burial in a cemetery, burial on private land, or eco-friendly burials in water or ground. Take the time necessary to decide on the choice that satisfies the desires of your family and loved ones.

      *Image can be found here:

      **The Cremation Association of North America estimates that by 2018, 50% of the people who die will be cremated

      Maggie Shopen Thompson, MFA, is a freelance writer and writing workshop facilitator in Montpelier, Vermont. She has had experience as a caregiver for her mother many years ago, and for her husband and daughter during their recent cancer treatments and recoveries. She is a contributing author/artist in Healing Art & Writing – using creativity to meet illness, curated and edited by Patricia Fontaine, published in August 2016.