A ceremonial urn is sitting on a table with aspen trees in the background of a Better Place Forests Memorial Forest in Flagstaff Arizona

What is an Urn? The Evolution & Modern Uses of Urns

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If you’ve recently lost someone or are planning for end-of-life, you’ve likely looked into urns. Understanding the way urns are used and how that’s evolved with time can help you decide what’s right for you. use

An urn, at its core, is more than just a vessel for ashes. It stands as a symbol of remembrance, a tangible connection to a life lived and cherished. The diversity in types and designs of urns – ranging from simple and traditional to modern and eco-friendly – can add to the complexity of understanding their purpose and significance. 

In this article, we will explore the various facets of urns and their uses.

The Symbolic And Emotional Significance Of Urns In Various Cultures

The symbolic and emotional significance of urns is deeply rooted in the customs and beliefs of various cultures. In each tradition, an urn is not just a repository for the remains of a loved one; it is a vessel imbued with profound meaning, often reflecting the culture’s views on life, death, and the hereafter.

  1. Ancient Civilizations: In ancient civilizations such as Egypt, urns, particularly canopic jars, were integral to burial rites. These jars, designed to hold the internal organs of mummies, were not only functional but deeply symbolic, each representing a protective deity. Similarly, in ancient Greece and Rome, urns or ossuaries were used to store cremated remains. These were often ornate, adorned with artwork and inscriptions, reflecting the deceased’s life and status and serving as a testament to their legacy.
  2. Eastern Traditions: In Eastern traditions, urns take on a spiritual dimension. In Hinduism, urns are used in the ritual of ‘asthi visarjan,’ where ashes are immersed in sacred rivers, symbolizing the soul’s return to the elemental form and the belief in the cycle of rebirth. Buddhism, too, sees urns as significant, often storing relics or cremains in them. Placed in stupas or temples, these urns become centers for meditation, reflecting on life’s impermanence.
  3. Western Perspectives: The use of urns in Western cultures varies from the religious to the secular. In Christianity, while traditional practices favored burial, cremation and the use of urns have gained acceptance in some denominations, with urns designed to reflect dignity and respect. In more secular contexts, urns often become more personalized, reflecting the individual’s personality or life story and emphasizing the Western value of individuality.
  4. Indigenous Cultures: Indigenous cultures around the world also incorporate urns into their burial practices, though their use and design can differ significantly. For instance, many Native American tribes use urns made from natural materials like clay or stone, adorned with spiritually significant symbols. These urns reflect a deep connection to the land and the community’s heritage. In contrast, in Aboriginal Australian cultures, where urns are less common when used, they often feature elements of Dreamtime and traditional art, symbolizing the individual’s connection to their ancestral land and community.

Understanding Various Types of Urns

Urns are as diverse and intricate as the lives they commemorate. Understanding the different types of urns available is essential in appreciating their role in memorial practices. Each type, with its unique materials, designs, and intended uses, offers a way to honor and remember loved ones in a manner that resonates with their life story and the preferences of those remembering them.

Material-Based Urns:

  • Ceramic Urns: Known for their classic beauty, ceramic urns offer a timeless elegance. They can be intricately painted or glazed, often becoming a piece of art that symbolizes the beauty of the life lived.
  • Metal Urns: Durable and versatile, metal urns range from simple, polished designs to elaborate, sculpted works. Common materials include bronze, brass, and stainless steel, each offering a sense of permanence and strength.
  • Wooden Urns: Wooden urns bring a natural, warm aesthetic. Crafted from various woods like oak, pine, or mahogany, they can be plain or ornately carved, reflecting a connection to nature and simplicity. They are often chosen by people looking for an eco-friendly option.
  • Biodegradable Urns: Eco-friendly and designed for minimal environmental impact, biodegradable urns are made from materials like paper, salt, or gelatin. They are ideal for those who prefer a green burial or sea scattering.

Design and Functionality:

  • Keepsake Urns: Smaller in size, keepsake urns are designed to hold a portion of the ashes. They allow multiple family members to keep a part of their loved one close.
  • Companion Urns: Built to hold the ashes of two individuals, companion urns symbolize the unity of lives intimately connected, often used by spouses or close partners.
  • Themed Urns: Reflecting hobbies, passions, or professions, themed urns celebrate the unique aspects of an individual’s life, from artistic designs to military motifs.
A ceremonial urn is sitting on a table with yellow aspen leaves in a vase, at a Better Place Forests Memorial Forest in Flagstaff Arizona.

Eco-Friendly and Sustainable Urn Options

Today, many people prefer environment-friendly urn alternatives compared to traditional options. This choice not only honors the memory of loved ones but also demonstrates a commitment to sustainability. Let’s delve into these alternatives in detail to understand their impact and significance.

1. Biodegradable Urns

Biodegradable urns are crafted with the intent to return to the earth gently. Made from natural materials like paper, salt, clay, or plant fibers, these urns are designed to break down naturally when buried or placed in water. Ideal for water burials or natural burial grounds, they offer a way to honor a loved one without leaving a lasting impact on the environment. The materials used are carefully chosen to ensure they are environmentally friendly and sustainable, making these urns a popular choice for those who are environmentally conscious.

2. Tree Urns

The concept of tree urns beautifully encapsulates the cycle of life, offering a living tribute to loved ones. These urns combine cremated remains with a tree seed or sapling, allowing for the growth of a tree as a living memorial. This approach not only offers a deeply personal and growing remembrance but also contributes positively to the environment through reforestation. Saplings can be overwhelmed by a change in soil pH balance from too much ash, so be aware that not all saplings planted with a tree urn will survive. 

While not an urn, Better Place Forests allows for the spreading of ashes beneath a chosen mature tree in a protected forest. This option aligns with the ethos of tree urns, creating a lasting, living memorial in a serene forest setting. It’s an ideal choice for those who seek to honor their loved ones in a way that also preserves and cherishes the natural world.

3. Scattering Tubes

Designed specifically for the eco-friendly scattering of ashes, scattering tubes are often made from biodegradable materials. They come in various designs, some of which can be personalized to reflect the deceased’s interests or personality. These tubes provide a simple and respectful way to return ashes to nature, whether it be in a garden, a forest, or at sea.

4. Sand and Gelatin Urns

These urns are a combination of sand and gelatin, creating a durable yet biodegradable vessel. They are specifically designed for water-based ceremonies, dissolving in water over time. Sand and gelatin urns are often chosen for their natural composition and their suitability for sea or river ceremonies.

5. Recycled Paper Urns

Made from recycled paper or cardboard, these urns are an eco-friendly option for those conscious of their environmental footprint. They can be personalized with drawings, messages, or paintings, allowing for a unique and meaningful tribute. Recycled paper urns are suitable for both burial and cremation ceremonies where minimizing environmental impact is a priority.

6. Bamboo Urns

Bamboo is known for being one of the most sustainable materials, and bamboo urns leverage this quality. They are durable yet biodegradable, offering a unique and natural aesthetic. Bamboo urns are an excellent choice for those looking for an eco-friendly urn that is both sturdy and gentle on the environment.

7. Rock Salt Urns

Carved from natural rock salt, these urns are a testament to the beauty and simplicity of natural materials. They slowly dissolve when submerged in water, making them a unique option for water burials. Rock salt urns appeal to those seeking a strong connection with the earth and sea.

Selecting the Right Urn: Practical Considerations

Selecting an urn is a deeply personal decision that involves several crucial factors. Here are five detailed aspects to consider, ensuring the choice aligns with your needs, values, and the memory of your loved one:

1. Material and Durability

The material of the urn is not only about aesthetics but also about durability and suitability for the intended final resting place. Common materials include metal (like bronze or brass), wood, ceramic, stone, and biodegradable substances. Metal urns are durable and can be intricately designed, suitable for display or burial. Wooden urns offer a warm, natural look but may not be as durable as metal. Ceramic and stone urns are elegant but can be fragile. Biodegradable urns are ideal for natural burials or water ceremonies, as they are designed to break down naturally.

2. Size and Capacity

Urns come in various sizes, and it’s important to choose an urn size with the appropriate capacity. The general rule is one cubic inch of space per pound of body weight before cremation. For example, a person who weighs 150 pounds will typically require an urn with a capacity of at least 150 cubic inches. Additionally, consider if the urn will hold all or just a portion of the ashes, as keepsake urns and jewelry are available for sharing ashes among family members.

3. Design and Personalization

The design of the urn can reflect the personality, interests, or life story of the deceased. From simple and understated to ornate and decorative, the style of the urn can be a significant factor. Personalization options like engraving names, dates, messages, or even artwork can add a unique and meaningful touch. Some choose designs that reflect the deceased’s hobbies, favorite colors, or religious symbols.

4. Cultural and Religious Considerations

Cultural and religious beliefs can play a crucial role in selecting an urn. Different cultures and religions have specific practices and views regarding cremation and urns. For instance, some may prefer biodegradable urns for environmental reasons or particular materials and designs that align with religious beliefs. It’s important to consider these aspects to ensure the urn choice respects and honors these traditions.

5. Price and Budget

Urns are available at a wide range of prices, and it’s important to set a budget beforehand. The cost can vary significantly based on the material, design, size, and level of customization. While it’s natural to want the best for a loved one, consider what is financially feasible. Remember that a higher price doesn’t always equate to a more respectful or loving tribute. The sentiment and thought behind the choice hold the true value.

Parting Thoughts

As we delve into the essence of what an urn is, we discover its role as not just a container for ashes but as a profound symbol of remembrance and legacy. Each urn, with its unique material, design, and purpose, offers a special way to honor a life and cherish memories. From the timeless elegance of ceramic urns to the earth-friendly choice of biodegradable options, the variety reflects the diverse ways we commemorate our loved ones.

In this context of thoughtful memorialization, Better Place Forests offers a resonant alternative. Their concept of integrating ashes into the serene beauty of a protected forest provides a living tribute, aligning with the values of sustainability and environmental harmony. This choice goes beyond traditional urns, offering a way to celebrate life in harmony with nature, creating a legacy that contributes to forest conservation and offers a tranquil space for reflection and remembrance.

A ceremonial urn is sitting on a table at a Better Place Forests Memorial Forest in Point Arena California.


Is it normal  to put an urn in the house?

Yes, it is perfectly acceptable to keep an urn in the house. Many people find comfort in having their loved one’s ashes close by, and it’s a common practice to place the urn in a meaningful or visible spot within the home. The choice of location can be a personal reflection space or a communal area, depending on the family’s preference and the significance of the urn.

Is it healthy to keep an urn at home?

Keeping an urn at home is generally considered healthy, both physically and emotionally. Modern urns are designed to securely contain the ashes, ensuring no health risks from exposure. Emotionally, having an urn at home can provide a sense of closeness and comfort to grieving family members. It allows for a personal connection and a way to honor and remember the deceased. 

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