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3 Options - 3 Steps to Transfer Ashes to a Cremation Urn

Transferring ashes to cremation urn. Drawing by J. Malec.

3 Options to Transfer Ashes

The loss of a loved one brings unexpected challenges, such as the handling of their ashes following cremation. This guide provides important information on how to fill an urn with ashes.

First, there are three main options on who will assume responsibility for transferring the ashes, and how it will be done.

  1. Request the funeral home or crematorium do it for you.
  2. Transfer the ashes yourself. Take the original plastic bag with ashes and place the entire bag inside a cremation urn.  
  3. Transfer the ashes yourself by pouring them into a display cremation urn, a scattering urn, keepsake urn or into memorial jewelry. Ask the help of a trusted family member if desired.

When a funeral home or crematorium transfers the ashes to an urn

Funeral homes and crematoriums often have a selection of urns available for purchase. However, consumers might wish to purchase a specific urn from an online or other retailer. The Federal Trade Commission’s Funeral Rule specifies that: “The funeral provider cannot refuse to handle a casket or urn you bought online, at a local casket store, or somewhere else — or charge you a fee to do it. The funeral home cannot require you to be there when the casket or urn is delivered to them.”

You can opt to obtain a quality urn from a vendor of your choosing, and have it sent directly to the funeral home or crematorium so their staff can transfer the ashes for you.  For information on how to select an urn, see OneWorld Memorial’s planning guide "4 Questions to Consider When Choosing a Cremation Urn."

3 Steps - Transferring ashes into a cremation urn

Cremated remains usually come from the funeral home or crematorium contained in a thick polyethylene bag that is inside a sturdy cardboard box, plastic box, or plastic temporary urn. The box will be labeled for proper identification and accompanied by a certificate of cremation that is required to remain with the ashes. 

According to the website Cremation Resource, “Cremation remains are not toxic and do not present any health hazard.  In fact, human ashes are considered a sanitary, natural substance.” However, fine particulate matter should always be handled with care to avoid inhalation. It is helpful to remember that ashes can vary from a fine sandy powder like sugar to a gravelly texture such as kitty litter.

If you decide to transfer ashes from the original plastic bag into a memorial cremation urn, follow the guidelines below.

Suggested materials:

  • chosen urn of correct size
  • a flat, level surface undisturbed by wind or breeze
  • newspaper or towel
  • large funnel
  • scissors
  • optional – sealant (for permanent seal)
  • optional – gloves for handling ashes

Prepare the area:

  • spread a towel or newspaper on a flat surface
  • then place the cremation urn on top of the towel or paper and remove the lid
  • place funnel in the opening of the urn

3 Steps to transfer the ashes:

  1. Take the original plastic bag and be sure it’s sealed or closed with a tight tie on both ends, then cut a diagonal whole at one corner. This creates a small spout through which to pour the ashes in a controlled manner.
  2. Slowly pour remains through the funnel and into the urn. Gently tap the funnel and urn to settle the ashes.
  3. Place the lid on the urn. At this point, if you wish to permanently seal the urn, use glue or sealant on the lid.

Another option is to simply place the entire original bag with ashes inside an urn, which is a straightforward task. Remove the plastic bag from the original delivery box, place the bag inside an urn of your choosing, and close the lid.

How to transfer ashes to scattering urns or biodegradable urns

You might wish to transfer ashes from the original sealed bag to biodegradable urns or scattering urns. This process requires a bit more precision than transferring to a larger display urn simply because, in most cases, the ashes will be going into a smaller vessel.

Once you have the biodegradable or scattering urn of your choosing, be sure to choose a flat, level surface without wind, and with good lighting conditions. Have an appropriate-sized funnel (sometimes smaller than for a display urn) for the opening of the chosen biodegradable or scattering urn(s)

Prepare the area as outlined above by covering the flat surface with a towel or paper. Follow steps 1, 2, and 3 above. Once the transfer is complete, store the urn in a safe place until your ceremony. Note that glue is unnecessary for biodegradable urns and scattering urns since the container won’t be permanently sealed, but will either decompose (biodegradable urns), or will be reopened during a scattering ceremony.

How to fill keepsake urns or pieces of cremation jewelry with ashes

Should you have small vessels, such as pet urn jewelry, keepsake urns or jewelry urns, it’s recommended that you take extra care when pouring.

You will need:

  • a towel or newspaper
  • an appropriate-sized funnel for the chosen keepsake urn or urn jewelry
  • a small shallow container with a wide opening to hold a portion of the ashes
  • sealant or glue if permanent closure is desired
  • gloves (optional) for handling the ashes

Spread the towel or newspaper on a flat, level surface that has good lighting. Be sure there is no wind or breeze from an open window. Place the small container with ashes on the towel or paper. Then follow these three steps:

  1. Test the funnel by holding it over the container and pour a small amount of ashes through the opening. If they go smoothly, you’re all set. If not, cut the funnel opening slightly larger.
  2. Then take the jewelry piece or keepsake, and hold it over the container. With the other hand, use the funnel to scoop a small portion of ashes. Then hold the funnel over the opening of the jewelry or keepsake while pouring in a controlled manner.
  3. Seal the top with glue or sealant if desired.

What if I have commissioned a piece of art to be made with ashes?

You may wish to commission an artist to create a memorial artwork as unique as your loved one. Ashes can be incorporated into ceramic sculpture or fused glass, such as those created by Cremation Ash Memorial Artist Joelle Williams. Artists who specialize in creating artwork that incorporates ashes will have their own guidelines for how they would like to receive ashes. Be sure to inquire on their guidelines, and ask how they handle cremains. It’s important that you feel safe and sure about their practices.

OneWorld Memorials’ has partnered with a world-class artist who creates memorial glass keepsakes that incorporate cremains. Detailed instructions are provided on how to send the cremains to the artist once the order is placed.

Getting Closer to Closure

Each person’s ashes are unique in chemical composition. Cremains tell a story through the minerals and trace elements that are distinctive to one individual. This story may speak to factors such as geographic location, occupation and dietary preferences. Cremated remains may also have a different texture and weight from one to another.

While the thought of transferring cremated remains can be intimidating, it can also help to provide closure. If you are uncomfortable performing this task alone, ask a close friend or family member to help. Creating a personal ritual around the transfer could be helpful in the grieving process.

Perhaps you have a small memento you will include with the ashes. Perhaps you have some words to share with your loved one in private. Give yourself permission to go with what feels right to get what you need out of the experience. 


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