Purchasing a Cremation Urn for a Grieving Friend

by Jerri Haaven, Certified Grief Recovery Specialist, Certified Celebrant

Your phone rings and it’s your best friend. Between sobs, she tells you her husband has died. She knows that he wished to be cremated, but her heart is shattered and she doesn’t feel ready to handle the choices before her. She asks for your help to buy the cremation urn for his ashes.

As you absorb the sad news, recognition of the depth of your friend’s request also begins to take hold. Of course you will help. Several questions immediately come to mind. Where do you buy cremation urns? What type of urn would she like? You stop momentarily and ask yourself, what are the most important considerations for your friend?

Begin with your friend

Discussing topics such as whether her husband had asked for anything specific, and selecting an urn for ashes or a memorial urn requires sensitivity. It’s very likely that addressing these choices will fuel the deep sadness and loss she is experiencing. Yet, it’s also likely that she has insights gained from discussions with her husband before he died. The insights would guide you in helping shape a choice of urn.

Begin by prompting your friend to share her memories of her husband. Ask her what feelings she recalls in discussions they shared. Suggest that she go back to and relive a moment with him shortly before he died. Focusing on a feeling often helps recall specific thoughts or conversations, and eventually other thoughts will emerge. Once you sense your friend is comfortable and focused, ask a few specific questions.

  • Did she and her husband share a vision that encapsulates their life together?

  • How did he wish to be remembered?

  • Ask her to talk about two or three of her husband’s greatest moments or achievements.

  • Can one of these be honored?

  • How does she want to honor and remember her husband and aspects of his life?

    A few prompts such as the above will begin a dialogue with your friend. Listen attentively. Then begin to encourage her to describe a vision she and her husband shared. If they had not solidified a vision, encourage her to shape a vision based on her memories, and to describe that vision to you. When you reflect back to her what she’s said, her acknowledgment will affirm her wishes. Remember that some people will not be up to having long conversations. Stay aware of when enough is enough.

    Once your friend’s vision clarifies, you can begin to search for an urn for ashes that will support that vision. A few practical considerations follow.

How do I choose an urn?

Consider the life her husband led. Was he religious? If so, there are several different styles of urns that represent a person’s faith and conviction. Did he love music? Did he enjoy the outdoors, the mountains or ocean, birds or animals? Numerous styles of cremation urns depict a love of nature, and also display illustrations of wildlife that may appeal to the family. Was he athletic? Were symbols important to him? Did he serve his country in the military? If so, maybe a military urn would be appropriate. In other words, how personalized does she or the family want the urn to be?

If personalization isn’t an issue, there are cremation urns for adults, as well as small urns, that are stylized. Wood cremation urns are a common choice, as are biodegradable urns. Keepsake and memorial urns offer options of urns made from marble, stone, pewter and bronze. The vast selection can be overwhelming. But understanding the personality of your friend’s husband and his interests should help you focus the search.

Is there a plan for the ashes?

Ask the family to advise if there are plans for the ashes. The opportunity to personalize the disposition of the ashes has grown over the years. Ashes in a memorial urn are sometimes placed in a niche within a mausoleum. Other families choose to display the ashes in a keepsake urn on a shelf in the home.  Scattering ashes or selecting a necklace urn as a keepsake creates their own significance.

What size urn do I need?

Urns come in many sizes such as baby urns and cremation urns for adults. When determining the size of an urn, The Cremation Association of North America (NACA) has set the industry standard at 200 cubic inches, which represents an average sized male adult. If you have doubts as to an appropriate size, it is best to check with the funeral home or crematorium for their best estimate on size.

Transporting Ashes

Recognize that there may be a need to transport the cremated remains to another city or state. See our article on Transporting and Shipping Cremated Remains.

Buying Your Urn

When you have comfortably reviewed options with your friend, narrow the selection to urns that best meet the vision she has shared. Then it is time to ask if she is ready to decide. It is important that she be the one, if possible, to determine which urn(s) will be purchased. If she isn’t able to make a decision, she might be left without an urn for her husband’s ashes. In that case, get her permission to make the decision.

The moment when she is presented with her husband’s ashes can be life altering. It’s that moment when the full recognition of her husband’s death and cremation become real. It can leave her disoriented for days.

When her husband’s ashes are in a final resting place, your friend’s journey through grief undoubtedly continues. What may not be evident to you is that with your help, she was able to make an important decision. You enabled her to put one foot in front of the other - a meaningful step in the process of healing her broken heart.


[1] NACA

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