Cremation Urns: Helping to Tell Your Loved One’s Story
Cremation urns have been in use for as long as cremation has been practiced – and the practice of cremation predates the written record.
History of Cremation Urns
One of the most memorable of the ancient stories of cremation is the cremation of Patroclus, the companion of Achilles, who died during the Trojan war. The story of his death and cremation are recorded on the pages of The Iliad where Homer tells us of the massive funeral pyre that was constructed for his cremation. Following the cremation, the remains of Patroclus were placed in a bronze urn and were buried beneath a tumulus – a burial mound – to mark the spot. While the Iliad is often regarded as a fantastic story of fiction, there is clear evidence of both the Trojan war and of the existence of the legendary Achilles and Patroclus.
The ancient Romans also practiced cremation – many times in a very public setting. Funeral pyres were constructed in the forum or just outside the cities – depending on the social status of the person who died. Following, the urns of stone or earthenware were typically placed in private tombs, monuments, or were deposited in underground columbaria, most on the Via Appia outside Rome.
For the ancient Scandinavians boats symbolized safe passage to the afterlife and were therefore significant for cremation practices. For people of high standing, boats were constructed or brought ashore for the purpose of creating a funeral pyre for the cremation. For most, following cremation, an effigy in the shape of a boat was built and the earthenware urn holding the cremated remains buried in the center.
Forms of Ancient Urns
Historically, cremation urns have taken two shapes or forms: the vase and the casket. Even so, when we consider the word “urn” we typically think of a vase or jar, often with a foot, and a lid, a shape that came into vogue as an urn with the ancient Greeks and Romans. The word urn comes from the Latin urna – which is literally translated as a rounded vessel.
In Greek art, these classic shapes were usually found in the form of the stamnos, amphora, pelike, or krater and in their various forms. The ancient potteries of Greece were well-acquainted with vases being used to tell stories – and it is only apropos that many of these vases would eventually hold cremated remains – a prized possession of a person in life would become their resting place in death.
However, these rounded vases are not the only urns from history. The Etruscans created elaborate cinerary chests complete with carved sides and typically with reclining carved figures of the deceased on their covers.
Though cremation memorials have taken many shapes over the centuries, urns have been essential and integral parts of both the cremation process and of giving rest to the dead.
The Urns of the Ancients
Archaeologists believe that urns were considered by the ancients as a new identity for the dead – a new body that held their purified cremated remains. It is suggested in many discoveries of early urn burials that the urn’s size, shape, and decoration all had a bearing on how that culture or society reconstituted a deceased person’s identity after death to match their identity in life. The principal role of the urn, then, was to protect the cremated remains and create a symbolic “wholeness” following the reduction of the body by fire.
Additionally, the correlation of the urn-as-body connection can be supported in studying Greek pottery. Historians have given labels to parts of vases – and, almost unironically, these labels correspond to the parts of the human body.
Materials of Ancient Urns
The earliest forms of cremation vessels in antiquity were crafted of earthen material. Whether stone or clay, they were fashioned in a simple style to be placed within the earth. Grecian urns were most commonly created of terra cotta earthenware. In some cases, metal was used, such as in the urn of Achilles described in the Iliad during the Trojan War; and the Derveni Krater, discovered in 1962 containing cremated remains of two individuals.
Romans typically chose glass and stone to create their cinerary urns, though in the Northern part of the Roman Empire, Roman cremation burials are typically found in earthen vessels. The Etruscans used elaborately carved stone chests to place cremated remains.
Most early discoveries of cinerary urns from the Anglo-Saxons show that their cremation urns were created in earthenware, most commonly ceramics or terra cotta. But why in earthenware? The answer is practicality and availability. Clay was readily available and proved an easy medium to create storage vessels for daily use – which would later be repurposed as a cinerary urn. Similarly, in the case of the ancient Greeks, prized red- and black-figure vases that were used in life for holding grain or wine were given an eternal life as a resting place of the cremated remains of their owners. In the case of the smaller Anglo-Saxon cultures however, archaeologist Howard Williams suggests this further shows the connection of the urn as the new body of the deceased mentioned previously – this one “forged by fire” much like the remains within.
Modern experts agree that the selection of a cremation urn is essential part of the grieving process. Having a plan of what to do with your loved one’s ashes after cremation is one of the most important decisions you can make, and the selection of and placement in an urn is the first step of that process.
What can be done with the urn?
There are a multitude of options that allow your family to remember your loved one with dignity and grace. Many families choose to scatter all or part of their loved one’s remains in a favorite place. Scattering can take place on land, from the air, or in a favorite national park. It is most important to remember that you must check all local, state, and federal rules to avoid fines and citations. Never scatter on property that is not yours without permission from the owner of the property.
Increasingly, many families are choosing The Living Urn. This one-of-a-kind, patented process places your loved one’s remains with a tree above it – allowing your loved one’s memory to be linked with new life and love. While the loved one does not become the tree, their ashes become part of the soil environment around the tree and become part of its growth.
Another very popular option is placement in a cemetery. Whether it is in a burial space amongst other family members or in an indoor or outdoor niche in a columbarium, this option gives your family a place to readily visit your loved one whenever you would like. This permanent placement becomes a record of your loved one that can help leave steppingstones into your family’s past.
Very commonly, families choose to keep their loved one’s urn near them in their home. This is one of the most personal of the options and can truly give peace and comfort having the loved one continually nearby. There are some concerns that come with this option. For instance, there is nothing to protect the urn or remains in case of natural disaster or catastrophic property loss. Also, should you decide to keep your loved one’s ashes at home, consider choosing a keepsake urn or a piece of cremation jewelry. For the majority of the ashes, it is very important that you have a long-term plan for their eventual placement. Many times, other family members don’t have the same connection to the loved one’s urn – leaving the decision to heirs and other family members. Again, this is where the importance of having a plan for your loved one’s ashes becomes a factor.
There are so many options available, and many people choose to divide the ashes and choose multiple placements. Whatever your choice, take some time to consider what feels right to you and your family.
Why are urns important?
The choice of an urn or keepsake is one of the most important steps of honoring your loved one’s memory. This makes the urn a very important and significant part of your grief journey. Here are some reasons urns are a necessary and comforting choice.
- Urns are practical – placement of your loved one’s ashes in an urn is the best way to securely contain and protect your loved one’s ashes.
- Urns can be decorative or simple – whether you choose to place your loved one’s ashes in the family burial space, a niche in a columbarium, or if you decide to keep them at home while you decide what is right, there is likely to be an urn that matches your taste or your loved one’s personality.
- Urns encourage healing – an urn is a very personal and even spiritual decision for many families. The urn you choose for your loved one becomes part of their memorial identity, and gives you a comforting focal point for grief, memories, love, and affection. Placing your loved one’s ashes in an urn offers a step toward healing in the grief process and peace of mind with the knowledge that a loved one’s remains are safe and secure. Most urns allow personalization that gives a glimpse of your loved one’s personality, culture, and helps to tell their story.
What materials are used to make urns?
Urns are offered in many different materials and your decision of an appropriate memorial placement can help you decide the type of urn to choose.
Natural and biodegradable urns are made in bamboo and recycled, recyclable, and Earth-friendly biodegradable materials. These are perfect for the individual who is environmentally conscious or chooses to scatter their loved one’s ashes or bury them, so they return to the Earth over time. Bamboo urns can be kept in the home and are beautifully crafted and lovingly assembled.
Metal urns are the most popular style of urn. Metals such as timeless brass, modern and enduring aluminum, classic zinc alloy, and handcrafted pewter are available in a wide variety of colors and shapes – and most allow engraving to help make your loved one’s resting place personal and help to tell their story. Metal urns are appropriate for nearly all types of placement options.
Natural wood urns are a warm and personal choice. They can be crafted of hardwoods like walnut, cherry, oak, or mahogany – or they are created in synthetic woods with natural wood and paper veneers. These urns can be engraved to create a personal memorial and are ideal for placement in the home or burial in the earth.
Stone urns represent some of the most enduring types of urns. These urns are created in either naturally quarried stone or are created in virtually indestructible cultured marble. Natural stone urns can be personalized with engraving and are appropriate for burial or placement in a columbarium niche. Many cemeteries require the use of an urn vault, and many cultured marble urns satisfy this requirement without having to purchase an urn vault. Additionally, cultured marble urns are beautifully enduring, colorful, and offer a wide range of personalization options.
Ceramic urns are the culmination of all the elements. Whether hand-crafted on the potter’s wheel or hand-cast in a mold, ceramic urns are shaped with the spirit of the artist’s imagination, earthen materials and water to create the urn, then air and fire harden the materials to create unique and stylish urns that are a beautiful memorial. Ceramic urns are best suited to keeping a loved one’s ashes at home, or, more ideally, for placing in a columbarium niche for safekeeping.
In the end, the urn material is not as important as what the urn represents and whether or not if it's a fit with your loved one and your family. The urn you select becomes a sacred vessel that helps tell your loved one’s story. The urn you select is purely personal and will help your grief journey to healing and peace.
~ By Jason Ryan Engler