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Burial Urns

Burial urns are an ancient creation still widely in use today for memorializing loved ones.

Burial urns are used to store the ashes of the dearly departed. [©Shutterstock, 2010]
©Shutterstock, 2010
Burial urns are used to store the ashes of the dearly departed.

Burial Urns

Burial urns, also called cremation urns, are containers for storing the cremation ashes of human or animal remains. Burial urns may be used as a memorial display or may be entombed in a small space, called a niche, in a mausoleum or columbarium.

Permanent burial urns are available in a variety of materials including wood, metal, blown glass, marble and stone. While sturdy, some materials may, over time, deteriorate when buried. In an attempt to keep the burial urn and ashes intact, protective vaults and/or grave liners may be used to encase the urn. Protective vaults are typically made of concrete, steel, heavy metals and durable plastic. No state or federal laws require the use of grave liners or protective vaults for urns or caskets. However, cemeteries may require grave liners to prevent the ground from sinking as a result of deterioration.

Non-permanent burial urns are made of biodegradable materials and may be decorated with water-soluble paints. Biodegradable burial urns are typically used for green burials, which leave no toxic or permanent materials in the ground or water. Non-permanent burial urns are intended to degrade only after placed in soil or released into a body of water. Deterioration of biodegradable burial urns can occur within minutes or up to one year depending on the material and manner of burial. Biodegradable burial urns designed specifically for water burial may float for a short time before sinking.

As green burials gain popularity, biodegradable burial urns are being offered in a great variety of materials. These materials include: cotton fiber, bamboo, cornstarch, sand combined with gelatin, Himalayan rock salt, mulberry tree bark and recycled paper.More information about environmentally friendly burials can be found through The Green Burial Council (GBG).

Legal Criteria for Burial Urns

Specific legal requirements have not been established for burial urns. While the funeral industry provides consumer guidelines for choosing the size of a burial urn, there are no regulations for size or materials. Any receptacle that can securely store cremation ashes may be used as a burial urn. The Funeral Consumers Alliance (FCA) encourages consumers to choose any container they find acceptable or appropriate to memorialize a loved one, such as inexpensive pottery or a favorite container that belonged to the deceased.

In cemeteries, burial urns are buried in the same manner as a casket holding non-cremated remains. Water burials, on the other hand, have fewer restrictions for cremation ashes than for non-cremated remains. Federal regulations require that non-cremated remains must be taken at least three nautical miles from land and must sink to a depth of at least 600 feet for water burial. Cremation ashes, which may be scattered or sunk at any water level, but still must be taken at least three nautical miles from shore. If sunk, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), requires that the burial urn will rapidly decay in water. Burial urns made of permanent or toxic material may not be discarded in the ocean. Instead, the contents of a permanent burial urn may be scattered on the surface of the water. All burials at sea must be reported to the EPA within 30 days. Prior to burial, the consumer should verify all information required for notification which may be difficult to reconstruct, such as longitude and latitude of the burial site. Consumers are advised to contact local government to ensure compliance with local state regulations for water burial.

Buying a Burial Urn

Traditional burial urns can be purchased at funeral homes, casket dealers, casket wholesalers or through online vendors. Consumers may choose an urn and deliver it directly to the funeral home or have it delivered to the home through a third party.

The general guideline for choosing the size of a burial urn is to allow for 1 cubic inch of ash per pound of the decedent's body weight. The most common size of a burial urn is 200 cubic inches for a single adult. The average dimension of a traditional burial urn is approximately 8x4x6. The remains of an infant one year or younger can usually fit into a 30-cubic-inch receptacle. A companion urn, or double urn, is suitable for the remains of two adults and generally 400 cubic inches in size.

Keepsake urns are small burial urns used to divide cremation ashes among family or friends. These may be purchased with a larger, matching, burial urn which is intended to accommodate the majority of the cremation ashes. Keepsake urns are offered in many styles that may be disguised as a trinket or decoration in the home.

Federal Law requires all funeral homes to accept burial urns and caskets bought through an independent vendor. The Funeral Rule is enforced through the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and ensures that the funeral home may not apply a handling fee for using or accepting delivery of an urn or casket not purchased through the funeral home.

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