OneWorld Memorials: Advice for Receiving 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, life doesn't feel the same way it used to. You may try to engage in day-to-day chores, only to find that you can't stay focused. The weight of the loss may be challenging to deal with alone. Not only do you have to attempt to live a normal life, but you also have the added responsibility of preparing for a memorial service - and that can feel overwhelming. OneWorld Memorials is here to help you through the process and provide you with a guide so you can worry less about figuring things out.

If your loved one has been cremated, the call from a funeral home or crematorium informing you that their cremated ashes are ready to be picked up may add even more stress on top of your sense of loss. What feelings will arise during the drive to pick up the ashes and on the way home with the ashes on the seat beside you?

In the midst of grief, the call about the cremated remains might be alarming. It carries the weight of finality.

We know how difficult this time can be. We want to make this life transition as smooth as possible, so we've gathered information to help you anticipate circumstances and details that might arise when you pick up the ashes of a loved one. Some common questions addressed in this planning guide are:

  • Can I prepare emotionally to receive the human ashes of my loved one?
  • Are cremated ashes sealed in a bag?
  • What is in ash? Are cremains fine or course? What color are the ashes?
  • Do human ashes smell?
  • 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 them?

How Can I Prepare Emotionally to Receive the Human Ashes of My Loved One?

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 both comfort and loss. It might help to prepare by thinking about the call to pick up cremains, imagining the drive home with them and having a trusted friend or family member with you to carry them into the house.

It may also help to know that even professionals who deal with loss every day can be blindsided by the emotional task of picking up cremains.

"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, Woods 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."

Woods knew the funeral home would call one day, but 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 like this can be difficult to prepare for - and they will be as unique as you are.

Therefore, it's not easy to anticipate exactly how you will feel when that call comes, or how the drive to the crematorium will feel. While receiving cremains or cremated ashes can be very personal, it is important to never feel like it is something you have to do alone. If you don't feel prepared to receive the ashes, it may be worth discussing with a family member or friend who can receive them for you.

Knowing a few details about the procedure of picking up cremains can make this task less frightening. Here are answers to some frequently posed questions about bringing your loved one's ashes home:

Are Cremated Ashes Sealed in a Bag?

The first big question usually concerns how cremated ashes will be presented to you from a funeral home or crematorium. While it seems impersonal, there are rules and regulations we have to abide by when it comes to how cremains are presented. Please know that we follow these rules and have the utmost sympathy and respect for you and your loved one.

We have paraphrased the following information on the legal procedures for containing cremains from the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association (ICCFA) to help you prepare for picking up your loved one's cremated ashes. This comes from Section Six of the procedure manual developed for funeral homes and crematories, entitled "Packaging of Cremated Remains."

  • The entire amount of cremated remains will be placed into a "sealable container," which must not be contaminated by anything other than the deceased's remains unless an authorized agent (e.g., an authorized family member) has specified that some other object be included in the cremation process.
  • A "sealable container" is anything that can be sealed to prevent leakage or contamination by foreign substances. A zipper-locked plastic bag is the most common container used.
  • Maintaining proper identification, the sealed container and its contents will be placed inside a temporary container - often a cardboard box of sufficient size. You may discuss with your funeral director the possibility of providing a different container as an authorized agent of the deceased. If the box or provided container is larger than the sealed package of cremains, a filler may be added around the sealed container, such as shredded paper or cotton wadding. The lid or top of this container will then be securely closed.
  • If cremains do not fit inside the receptacle you have designated, the crematorium may return the remainder in a separate container. You may also give written permission for any excess cremains to be disposed of according to legally established practices by the crematory authority.
  • Any temporary container used with the cremains should be placed inside a cardboard box with all seams taped closed to ensure the security and integrity of that container, then clearly marked with identifying information of the deceased person.

What is Ash? Are Cremains Fine or Course? What Color Are Ashes?

As morbid as it may seem, it's completely natural to wonder: What are ashes? Many people expect human ashes to appear like campfire ashes, fine and fluffy. This is partially due to how the media portrays ashes, using what is available, and the fact that many of us have never seen cremated remains, even if we know someone who was cremated. Rather, cremated human ashes resemble the coarseness of sand; they are not fine and light in texture like campfire ashes. Their color usually appears as gray, pasty-white or even dark gray.

Do Human Ashes Smell?

Asking what do human ashes smell like is a common concern, especially among those struggling to imagine what to expect when picking up their loved one's cremains. Most people who keep the ashes of a departed human or pet at home say they detect no odor from the cremains. A few respondents indicated a very slight metallic odor or a very slight scent of incense. Your experience of keeping cremains at home may vary, depending on the type of container you choose.

Are Cremation Ashes Heavy?

A box of adult human ashes can be surprisingly heavy. Cremated remains will not be as heavy as your loved one or pet in life, but they will still be heavy when received and one should be prepared for this. One of the reasons is that human cremation ashes include crushed bone, which makes them denser than ash from wood and, therefore, heavier.

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, which is about the same as 10.5 cups. Cremated remains generally weigh between three and seven pounds.

Do I Need to Purchase a Cremation Urn?

You are likely wondering: What do ashes come in following cremation? 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. You can get an urn or other receptable for your loved one's remains.

Choosing a cremation receptacle is a personal preference. Many families opt to purchase urns in advance. They may then have the funeral home transfer cremated ashes into display memorial urns, keepsake urns or cremation jewelry.

Various urns for burial are also available, but the truth is that 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. However, while any urn can be buried, not every urn can be preserved atop a mantle - it is important that you do not purchase a biodegradable urn unless you plan to bury it.

Various Urn Options

We often hear from people that they feel consoled by keeping a loved one's ashes close to the heart by wearing cremation jewelry that contains a portion of the cremains. 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 needing an urn urgently for a memorial service, a temporary urn can be purchased either through the funeral home or an online cremation urn retailer. Furthermore, if you're unable to make an immediate decision, a temporary urn can keep the ashes safe until you or your family are ready to select the perfect urn to pay tribute to the memory of your loved one.

Other Than Transferring Ashes to a Cremation Urn, What Else Can be Done with Cremated Ashes?

There are many options for the distribution of ashes or settling on a final resting place for cremains. Here are a few ideas:

  • Scatter ashes on land or at sea (check regulations for where you'd like to undertake this task)
  • Place ashes in a memorial urn for human ashes or a mini urn for pet ashes
  • Place the ashes in a burial urn to be interred in a cemetery plot
  • Have the urn containing your loved one's ashes placed in a columbarium, which is a structure comprised of niches designed specifically for cremation urns
  • Encase a small portion of ashes in a necklace or bracelet that can be worn as a remembrance
  • Fuse ashes into artwork, such as paintings, tattoos or glass cremation keepsakes
  • Arrange to have ashes placed in a coral reef
  • Launch your loved one's remains into space
  • Keep the cremated ashes in a safe storage space (i.e., a closet) until you and your family can decide on other arrangements
  • Be prepared for a unique experience

Just as grief is an individual process, each person's experience of receiving the cremated ashes of a loved one is unique. It's hard to predict what your emotional response will be.

Knowing some of the details and understanding the facts about cremation can contribute to a more sensible approach to this difficult step in the grieving process. Likewise, giving some thought to what to do with the ashes once you have them can help ease the shock and move you toward a more peaceful sense of closure.

Jerri Haaven is a freelance writer and 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. Now, she uses her skills to help people who are in the midst of their own personal story of grief and loss.

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