What to do if a Cremation Urn is Too Small

A Helpful Guide

A family still has several options if they receive an urn that is too small for their needs.

Cremation urns today are available in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, and most retailers make the size of every urn known readily in cubic inches. Customers should use this information as a guide to knowing whether the urn they have selected will be large enough to store all of the cremation remains of a loved one. In general, the rule of thumb to keep in mind is this: you will need 1 cubic inch of urn space for each pound that a person weighed. While this is not an exact measurement, memorial industry experts uniformly depend upon it as a reliable guide for their customers. (If anything, it is conservative, usually yielding an urn that is slightly larger than needed, which is an ideal situation.) There are rare situations, however, in which a customer receives a loved one’s cremation remains from a crematory only to discover that the selected urn is not large enough. Again, while following the rule mentioned above will almost always lead you to avoid this scenario, the guide below is intended to help in the rare cases in which an urn is too small.

Can I return the urn?

Reputable retailers will almost always accept a return of a cremation urn if the urn has not been used. In most cases, however, company policies prohibit the return of urns that have already been filled with cremation remains. These policies are usually supported by state or municipal laws. It has long been considered ill advised, from both a cultural and a sanitary perspective, to refill cremation urns that have been filled with even a trace of another person’s remains. To avoid this unfortunate scenario, it is best to inquire from the crematory as to the cubic inches of a person’s remains before anyone attempts to transfer them to a cremation urn. If there is ever even a slightest question when shopping for an ash vessel, one should not hesitate to contact the dealer to ensure they are getting an urn that will meet their needs.

What does the law say about excess ashes?

If you should consider disposing of excess cremation remains in some manner, it is important to know that very few state or municipal laws specifically address the disposal of cremation remains. Ashes are instead indirectly referenced in laws that deal with how property can be managed. In general, if you intend to dispose of your loved one’s ashes by scattering them over property that you do not own, you will have to obtain permission from the land owner to do so legally. And if you intend to dispose of ashes over public property, it is important to consult the person charged with managing the property. Many national parks, as just one example, have famously taken to banning the spreading of ashes over park land in recent years. While rules that prohibit the spread of ashes over a particular piece of property are rarely enforced, the best rule of thumb to follow is to scatter the ashes over property that you own or make sure there is no objection from the landowner, or manager, of property that you do not own.

How can I share the excess remains with others?

Keepsake Urns are one of many options to help store remains that may be left over.

In some cases when a family discovers that a cremation urn is too small for all of a loved one’s cremation remains, the decision is made to purchase one or more smaller urns, known as keepsake urns, to store the excess remains. These urns can then be shared with multiple members of the family, thereby helping various members to share in the memories that the cremation remains bring about. Another option is to purchase cremation jewelry, pendants, bracelets and other such pieces designed with a hollow compartment that can hold a small amount of cremation remains. Many families order several of these pieces for distribution of cremation remains even in cases in which an urn is not too small.

How can I make sure the urn will not be too small?

Families concerned that a cremation urn may be too small for all of a loved one’s remains should keep in mind that there is no reason, necessarily, that an urn must be purchased before the remains are available from the crematory. It is quite common for families to receive the remains in a temporary container and to hold them for weeks, months or even years before finally transferring them to their permanent urn. Following this practice is a good idea if a family is concerned that an urn may be too small. Once the remains are in a temporary container, simply knowing the volume of that container (which the funeral home or crematory should be able to easily provide) will lead to a correct decision about the size of the permanent urn the family must purchase.