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What to Expect When You Receive Cremation Ashes

How often -- will it be for always? -- how often will the vast emptiness astonish me like a complete novelty and make me say, “I never realized my loss till this moment"?                 – C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed


 Image by Kapula*

by Jerri Haaven, Grief Recovery Specialist and Celebrant

When a loved one passes away, tasks such as day to day chores, and even preparations for a memorial service, can feel overwhelming. Add to that an item rarely considered - the call from a funeral home or crematorium informing you that your loved one’s ashes are ready to be picked up. What might it feel like during the drive to pick up the ashes, and on the way home with the ashes on the seat beside you? Usually in the midst of grief, this call might be experienced as alarming. It is a call of finality.

We’ve gathered information to help you anticipate circumstances and details that might arise when you pick up ashes of a loved one. Topics included in this planning guide are:

  • Can I prepare emotionally to receive the ashes of my loved one?
  • Are cremated ashes sealed in a bag?
  • Are cremains fine or course? What color are ashes?
  • Should I expect an odor from the ashes?
  • Are cremation ashes heavy?
  • Do I need to purchase a cremation urn?
  • Other than transferring ashes in a cremation urn, what else can be done with ashes?

What will it feel like to pick up the ashes of a loved one?

“It was the call.” Ira Woods, president and founder of OneWorld Memorials remembers. “I wasn’t ready for it. I wasn’t expecting it. I was lost in my day -- then bam!” When the funeral home called to inform him that his wife’s ashes were ready to be picked up, Ira momentarily froze. “I felt devastated. It was at that moment when I had to accept it was final. Kris wasn’t away on a vacation; she was gone for good. The proof was that I had to pick up her cremains.”

Even though Ira knew the funeral home would call one day, the raw reality of receiving the phone call, driving to the funeral home, then being handed a box with the ashes touched a loss deeper than he had ever expected. Situations such as this can be difficult to prepare for, though we try.

When a person is ready to bring a loved one’s ashes into the home, unexpected emotions might arise. Keeping cremains at home can ignite conflicting feelings of comfort amidst a feeling of loss. It might help to think about receiving the call to pick up cremains, imagine driving home with them, and carrying them into the house. It also helps you prepare to know a few details about ashes.

Are cremated ashes sealed in a bag?

We obtained the following information regarding procedures for containing cremains from the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association (ICCFA) website.

Funeral homes and crematories:


6.1 The entire Processed Remains shall be placed in a Sealable Container as defined in Section 1.11.* The Sealable Container contents shall not be contaminated with any other object unless specific authorization has been received from the Authorizing Agent.

6.2 The Sealable Container together with the identification of the Cremated Remains shall be placed either within a temporary container or the designated receptacle ordered by the Authorizing Agent. Should the Cremated Remains within the Sealable Container not adequately fill the container’s interior dimensions, the extra space may be filled with shredded paper or clean absorbent cotton and the lid or top then securely closed.

6.3 If the entire Processed Remains will not fit within the dimensions of the designated receptacle, the remainder shall be returned either in a separate container, or upon written permission of the Authorizing Agent, be disposed of according to the established procedures of the Crematory Authority.

6.4 When a temporary container is used to return the Processed Remains, it is recommended that the container be placed within a corrugated box and all box seams taped closed to increase the security and integrity of that container. The outside of the container shall be clearly identified with the name of the deceased person whose Processed Remains are contained therein.


The “Sealable Container" is identified:

1.11 Sealable Container - Any container in which Processed Remains can be placed and sealed so as to prevent leakage of Processed Remains or the entrance of foreign materials. 

Are cremains fine or course? What color are ashes?

Many people expect human ashes to appear like campfire ashes – fine and fluffy. Instead, human ashes resemble the coarseness of sand – they are not fine and light in texture like campfire ashes. And they usually appear gray, pasty-white, or even dark gray.

Should I expect an odor from the ashes?

Most people who keep ashes at home, say they detect no odor from human or pet ashes. A few responses indicated a very slight metallic odor, or a very slight scent of incense.

Are cremation ashes heavy?

A box of adult human ashes can be surprisingly heavy. The weight is unlike what might be expected from a box of campfire ashes. The ashes include crushed bone, which makes them denser.

Sources in the funerary industry state that one pound of human or pet weight equals one cubic inch of cremated remains. If a person weighs 150 pounds, expect to receive about 150 cubic inches of ashes; or 10.5 cups. Cremated remains generally weigh between 3-7 pounds.

Do I need to purchase a cremation urn?

This is a personal preference. If you have not selected a memorial urn for ashes in advance of a loved one’s cremation, the funeral home or crematorium usually returns the ashes in a plastic bag inside a cardboard box. Many families opt to purchase urns in advance. They then have the funeral home transfer ashes into display memorial urns, keepsake urns, or even into cremation jewelry. Various urns for burial are also available. In reality, any urn can be buried. Keep in mind that a burial urn vault to protect the urn is recommended – especially for ceramic and glass urns that are more fragile.

We often hear from people that they feel consoled by keeping a loved one’s ashes close to the heart in cremation jewelry. Others prefer to have the ashes buried at a place away from home where they can visit at a time of their choosing. 

For families who need an urn urgently for a memorial service, a temporary urn can be purchased either through the funeral home or from an online cremation urn retailer. Or, if you’re unable to make an immediate decision, a temporary urn will keep the ashes safe until the time when a perfect urn can be chosen.

Other than transferring ashes to a cremation urn, what else can be done with the ashes?

There are many options for the distribution of ashes, and for a final resting place for ashes. Here are just a few:  

  • Scatter ashes on land or at sea (check regulations)
  • Place ashes in a memorial urn for human ashes or a mini urn for ashes
  • Bury ashes – place them in a burial urn that will be interred in a cemetery plot
  • Place the urn for ashes in a columbarium
  • Place a small portion of ashes in a necklace for ashes or bracelet
  • Fuse ashes into art (paintings, tattoos, glass cremation keepsakes)
  • Place in a coral reef
  • Launch into space or
  • …place in a closet

Each person’s story is unique when it comes to receiving cremated ashes of a loved one. It’s hard to predict an emotional response. Hopefully the above details contribute to a few concrete aspects of what to expect, as well as what to do with the ashes once you have them home.

Jerri Haaven is a freelance writer, and a certified Grief Recovery Specialist and Celebrant. When caring for her dad, who suffered from dementia and COPD, Jerri struggled with the negative side effects of his illness. She developed positive outlets to express herself and recover from her loss. Today as a certified Grief Recovery Specialist and Celebrant, she uses her skills to help people who are in the midst of their own personal story of grief and loss.



Dear Emily I’m sorry to hear your horrible news no one should deal with that sick!! I have a similar problem I’m sure you heard lately about Cantrell Funeral Home In Detroit my Mom dies last year and was cremated by Cantrell Funeral Home in East Pointe now I’m hearing that they might have put sand instead of my Mom I’m worried sick and don’t know where to start Maybe you can shed some light for me Thanx

Dear Jerri Haaven,

My mother passed away January 10, 2015. After her cremation, I picked up my mother’s cremains and three keepsake urns that we purchased from the funeral home. We chose to place her ashes directly into the ground without a container, so her cremains were inside of a bag, placed inside of a cardboard box. I waited to bury her remains until my brother and niece could come back from Indiana a few months later. We did so, privately at the High Springs cemetery just below her headstone, next to my beloved father. I gave a keepsake urn to each, my brother and niece, and kept one for myself. Finally laid to rest, I had some peace. That peace was completely shattered a few months later when my brother called me about the keepsakes. It appears that my curious teenage niece decided to check out her keepsake, unscrewed the lid in order to take a peek, and to her and our shock and dismay, she reported that the urn was empty. My brother and I checked ours, and they are empty as well.

There are no words to describe the anguish, horror, and the deep depression that I experienced. I am in tears now, trying to write about it after three years.

What can be done now? Nothing! I will not disturb my mother’s cremains. Even if we buried them in an urn, digging her up seems crass and tasteless.

Were we supposed to fill the keepsakes ourselves? Though I had several months before we buried her ashes, I would not in one billion-plus years have thought to open a sacred urn to take a little peek at what was left of my mother. May I please assume that my father’s keepsake holds his remains? (D. March 26, 2002, same funeral home). This is a rhetorical question and an afterthought, my father’s keepsake urn.

What is the protocol for taking care of the bereaved and their loved one’s remains / cremains, in terms of the keepsake urns? I cannot fathom the possibility that a funeral home would expect the family of the deceased to open up the main container (bag) and distribute their loved one’s cremains into the keepsake. That would be sick and heartless. What were we supposed to do – sit around the family dining table, pass her around, take a scoop, and fill our own urn? What if we spill a little? Just vacuum her up? I am heartbroken and deeply sickened. The thought of heartlessly expecting the family to handle these keepsake urns is disturbing.

Thank you for listening, and thank you for any suggestion or reply that you may have for me.

Kindest regards,

Emily R

So hard, his presence is no longer solid, he no longer shares my oxygen, his scent is no longer present. I thought about doing the tattoo with the ashes but I am afraid to trust a tattoo artist with my RAY’s remains.

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