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

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

Let OneWorld Memorials help you honor your loved ones’ wishes by teaching you how to transfer cremated remains to urns, jewelry or other vessels.

People who wish to be cremated do so for a variety of reasons, and one of those reasons involves a specific plan for the storage of ashes. We’ve heard beautiful stories of people being cast out to sea, or spread in a beautiful forest. Whether you are a religious and believe “for you are dust and to dust you shall return,” or someone who believes, like Carl Sagan, that “the cosmos is in us, we are made of star stuff,” those thoughts are comforting.

And they can help bring peace to those of us left behind. Cremation is a way to bring our loved ones with us as life goes on.

How to Transfer Ashes to a Cremation Urn or Jewelry

The loss of a loved one brings many unexpected challenges. One part of the grieving process that often catches mourners unaware is the handling of their loved one’s ashes following cremation. The situation creates a host of unpleasant, emotional questions.

In order to help you plan for your eventual passing or deal with the death of a loved one, this guide provides important information about how to fill an urn with ashes while remaining respectful of both the person you’ve lost and your own emotional state. There are no judgments here — only answers. You are free to decide how you feel about what to do with ashes.

Three Options for Transferring Cremation Ashes

First, there are three main options to consider for who will assume the responsibility of transferring the ashes into an appropriate container and how that transfer will be accomplished.

  1. Request that personnel at the funeral home or crematorium do it for you.
  2. Keep the original sealed container intact and transfer the ashes yourself. Simply take the plastic bag containing the ashes out of the cardboard box and place the entire bag inside a cremation urn, box or memorial chest of suitable size.
  3. Transfer the ashes yourself by pouring them into a display cremation urn, a scattering urn, a keepsake urn or a piece of memorial jewelry. Asking a trusted family member or friend to help is wise and can make this process more meaningful.

Option 1: Leaving it to the Pros

The personnel at funeral homes and crematoriums are professionals who are well-versed in how to transfer ashes into a cremation urn, and they often have a selection of appropriate vessels available for purchase. However, many people wish to purchase a specific urn from an online or other retailer. The Federal Trade Commission’s Funeral Rule stipulates that providers of funerary services are prohibited from both refusing to use a vessel you bought elsewhere and charging you a fee for transferring your loved one’s ashes. They are also not allowed to require you to be there when a purchased urn or container is delivered to the funeral home.

This means that you can opt to buy 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. If the idea of handling your loved one’s remains does not appeal to you, this option can alleviate a lot of stress. For information on how to select an urn, see OneWorld Memorial’s planning guide, Four Questions to Consider When Choosing a Cremation Urn.

Options 2 and 3: Transferring Ashes Yourself

If you feel capable of transferring ashes into a cremation urn yourself, the process does not have to be intimidating. 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 with proper identification and accompanied by a certificate of cremation that you must keep 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, the remains are a fine particulate matter, so you should always handle them with care and avoid inhaling them. It is helpful to remember that ashes can vary from a fine sandy powder like granulated sugar to a gravelly texture like cat litter.

How to Transfer Ashes to a Cremation Urn

If you decide to transfer ashes from the original plastic bag into an ashes container, memorial cremation urn or other appropriate vessel, follow these guidelines for best results.

First, gather these materials:

  • Your chosen urn or box of the correct size
  • A flat, level working surface in an area that is well-lit and undisturbed by wind or breeze
  • A piece of newspaper or a towel
  • A large funnel
  • Scissors
  • Sealant if your container requires a permanent seal (optional)
  • Gloves to avoid getting ashes on your skin (optional)

Next, prepare the area for the transfer:

  • Spread the towel or newspaper on the flat table or working surface.
  • Place the empty cremation urn on top of the towel or paper and remove the lid.
  • Place the funnel into the opening of the urn.

Follow these three steps to transfer the ashes:

  1. Make sure the original plastic bag is sealed or closed with a tight tie on both ends, then cut a diagonal hole at one corner. This creates a small spout through which you can pour the ashes in a controlled manner.
  2. Pour the remains slowly through the funnel and into the urn. Gently tap the funnel against the urn to settle the ashes.
  3. Place the lid on the urn and close it tightly. 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 sealed original bag of ashes inside an urn of sufficient size, 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, these tend to be smaller vessels.

Once you have the biodegradable or scattering urn of your choosing, be sure to choose a flat, level working surface in an area without wind but with good lighting conditions. Have an appropriate-sized funnel, generally smaller than for a display urn, for the opening of the chosen biodegradable or scattering urns.

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 container in a safe place until your ceremony. Note that glue is unnecessary for biodegradable urns and scattering urns because these containers won’t be permanently sealed. They will either decompose naturally in the ground or 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 jewelrykeepsake urns or jewelry urns, it’s recommended that you take extra care when transferring cremation ashes.

You will need these materials:

  • A towel or newspaper
  • An appropriate-sized funnel for the chosen keepsake urn or urn jewelry — a piece of cardboard or stiff paper rolled into a cone and taped may suffice
  • A small shallow container with a wide opening, such as a bowl or plate with a rim, to hold a portion of the ashes
  • Sealant or glue if permanent closure is desired (optional)
  • Gloves for handling the ashes without getting any on your skin (optional)

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. Pour a small amount of ashes from the original bag into the shallow container and place it on the towel or paper. Then follow these three steps:

  1. Test the funnel by scooping up some ashes and allowing them to fall through the opening back into the shallow bowl. If they travel smoothly, you’re all set. If not, cut the funnel opening slightly larger.
  2. Then hold the jewelry piece or keepsake urn in one hand over the container. With the other hand, use the funnel to scoop a small portion of ashes from the plastic bag. Hold the funnel over the opening of the jewelry or keepsake urn while pouring in a controlled manner. Allow the excess to fall into the shallow bowl.
  3. Seal the top of the vessel with glue or sealant if desired.

How to Transfer Ashes to a Commissioned Piece of Art

You may wish to commission an artist to create a piece of memorial artwork that is as unique as your loved one. Ashes can be incorporated into ceramic sculptures or fused glass, such as those created by Cremation Ash Memorial Artist Joelle Williams. Artists who specialize in creating artwork that incorporates ashes generally have their own guidelines for how they would like to receive ashes. Be sure to inquire about their requirements 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. Find detailed instructions about how to send the cremains to the artist once you have placed your order.

Getting Closer to Closure

Each person’s cremated ashes are unique in chemical composition. Cremains tell a person’s story through the minerals and trace elements that are distinctive to that individual. This story may indicate such factors as the geographic location where they lived, their occupation and some of their dietary preferences. Cremated remains may also vary in texture and weight from one individual to another.

While the thought of transferring cremated remains may sound intimidating, undertaking the process can also help provide closure after losing a loved one. If you are uncomfortable performing this task alone, ask a close friend or family member to do it with you. Creating a personal ritual around the transfer could be meaningful for your 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 this experience.

When you are ready, OneWorld Memorials can help you honor your loved one with high-quality urns and keepsakes. We work with the world’s best manufacturers and offer the most unique, exceptional items that perfectly capture your loved one’s spirit and legacy. We also offer plenty of options for engraving and personalization, as well as resources for planning.