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Our Recipe for Choosing a Cremation Urn Successfully and Avoiding 6 “Oops”

by Maggie Thompson

 Image* by James

Mistakes happen. The chocolate chip cookie is a great example. It was created in 1930 by accident. But choosing an urn for a loved one’s ashes is a choice we’d like to get right the first time. It is a heartfelt and thoughtful process that, when completed, can be followed by a sense of comfort.

Understandably, the main considerations are often the urn’s design motif, the quality workmanship of the ashes urn's material, and its aesthetic appeal. It’s important, though, to also consider some practical aspects in your selection.

6 "Oops" that could happen when choosing a cremation urn

  1. Wrong size urn for a niche
  2. The double-duty urn works for one purpose, but not the other
  3. A biodegradable urn meets moisture
  4. Beauty over correct capacity
  5. The left-over ashes
  6. The no-show urn

The fictitious scenarios below illustrate these 6 common “Oops" situations. With a bit of careful planning, each of the 6 mistakes can be easily avoided.  

  1. Wrong size urn for a niche - the columbarium
  • A Dragonfly Pond Ceramic Cremation Urn has been chosen for its graceful aesthetics. The formal part of the memorial service is over. The time has come to place the urn into the columbarium niche. Family and friends are gathered for this final gesture of remembrance. As the urn nears the niche, an uneasy stir sweeps through those in attendance. The urn appears to be too tall for the opening, and maybe just a tad too wide. You are left holding the Dragonfly. The niche sits empty. 

The niche, typical for a single niche, measures (in inches) 7.25W x 7H x 12D, and the Dragonfly Urn measures 9H x 7.5W – too high and wide to fit.

  • Susie and George purchased a Floral Wood Companion Cremation Urn while going through the process of preplanning for end of life. George passed away first. His ashes have been kept at home in the urn for ashes. Now Susie has died. Following through with their wishes, the family is ready to place the urn containing both Susie and George’s ashes in the double columbarium niche that the couple had arranged for 10 years earlier. Their son Tom reads a favorite passage from his mother’s poetry collection. Their daughter Anne carries the urn to the niche. As she lines up the edges, expecting the wooden urn to easily slide in, it doesn’t.

A standard double niche measures (in inches) 10.5W x 7H x 12D, and the Floral Wood Companion Urn measures 10.5W x 7.5H x 8.5D – it is too high.

As these examples illustrate, exact measurements of the columbarium niche and the urn are necessary to assure they are compatible. For more information, see our blog on selecting an urn for a columbarium niche.

  1. The double-duty urn - display and scattering

Steve was a professional geologist, and an avid mountain climber. His spouse Barbara chose the large Alluvium Marble Cremation Urn, reflective of Steve’s passions in life. The family agreed it was an excellent choice – a beautiful specimen of natural stone. The plan was to travel cross-country to scatter a portion of his ashes atop Mt. Mansfield in his beloved state of Vermont. The remaining ashes would be kept in the home, displayed in the marble urn for ashes.

Though the urn cleared airport security screening, it was an awkward item to manage. The day for the scattering dawned sunny and cool as three family members hit the trail up the mountain with the urn. Nearing the summit, the path became narrow, steep and rocky. Hands were needed to navigate the terrain. The large marble urn felt heavier and had to be managed while climbing rocks. Each person took a turn hefting it up the mountain, trying not to lose balance, and being sure not to tip the urn and lose its precious contents. Backs and arms ached. Breath and tempers became short. Scattering a few ashes did not lighten the load for the return hike.

Scattering tubes for ashes are designed for light weight ease of transport for air travel, or hiking. They are affordable and designed to stay closed until the time comes to open them for the scattering ceremony.

  1. A biodegradable urn meets moisture

The Himalayan Salt Biodegradable Cremation Urn appears substantial. Its shades of peach, ivory and coral dance in the light. It is designed for water burials and to decompose in the water. The Anderson family thought it was such an attractive piece that they decided to use it as a display urn. They placed it near a window, where the sunlight would catch the urn’s luster.  

Seasons changed from spring, to summer, to autumn. One day Emma noticed the eco friendly urn seemed to be sagging a bit, and a residue had left a ring spreading from the base. A salt ring. Somehow the changing temperatures over time had produced sufficient moisture for the urn to begin dissolving. 

Most biodegradable urns require cool dry places for storage, and, when, stored properly, can last for a period of time before being used in a cremation ceremony. Make sure to check the product information for best ways to store a biodegradable urn for ashes.

  1. Beauty over correct capacity

Ethan knew as soon as he saw it. It was the perfect urn for his wife’s ashes. The material, color and motifs all spoke to her interests and taste. Without a second thought, he ordered it, pleased that the choice had come so easily. Prior to the funeral, he set about transferring her ashes into the urn, startled to find that the urn filled before all the ashes had been put in. Though the urn measurements were checked to fit in a special space at home, the urn capacity was overlooked. The ashes of his 140-pound wife were too great a volume for the urn’s capacity of 50 cubic inches.

The funerary industry suggests 1 cubic inch urn capacity for every 1 pound of pre-death body weight, e.g., an urn capacity of 50 cubic inches will be sufficient for 50 pounds or less of body weight, and had Ethan purchased an urn of a capacity up to 150 cubic inches, the ash would have fit well within its parameters.

  1. A jewelry urn and left-over ashes

Alexis searched through a variety of necklaces for ashes to find an ash pendant to wear as a keepsake. Her focus was solely on the design and patina, selecting one that symbolized her memories of times shared with her partner. She came upon one that spoke to her – it was sterling silver and the design was perfect for her style and to honor her partner. When the pendant arrived, she was taken by surprise to realize that it held only a tiny portion of ashes. What was she to do with the rest?

Our blog about ways to care for cremated ashes provides traditional and unique ideas for keeping a loved one's memory close and their ashes honored and secure.

  1. The no-show urn

Many times, urns for ashes are not purchased until a loved one has died. In the midst of so much planning and emotional distress, usually there is a scramble to attend to the details of a memorial service. When the service is scheduled quickly, details can be overlooked. Terry planned a service to occur a few days following the death of her mother. She and her sister chose an urn that would be a prominent focal point for the ceremony. But Terry realized too late that the urn wouldn’t arrive in time. Accounting for shipping time, any engraving or personalization added and other unforeseen possibilities before a ceremony will reduce the risk of "the no-show urn".

Please see our blog about how to anticipate and plan the arrival date of your order.

The above scenarios illustrate miscalculations and oversights we have encountered with our customers. Each one can be avoided, ensuring a successful purchase and eliminating undue stress. When choosing and ordering an urn, taking  the time to consider the practical elements will greatly lessen any chance of the above occurring.

Recipe for choosing a cremation urn without issue:

  1. Take careful measurements and necessary dimensions.
  2. Read product descriptions thoroughly, noting urn capacity, material, and function.
  3. Note the shipping guidelines to assure timely delivery.
  4. In some instances, two urns might work best - for example, one for scattering a portion of ashes and another urn for display later, or one cremation pendant with another for the remainder of the ashes.
  5. When in doubt, check with customer service.

Though an “Oops” might become a warm-hearted family story in years to come, it is preferable that there are no jarring surprises while families proceed with ceremonies honoring the life of their loved one.

*Image can be found here:

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.