A Guide to Transporting or Traveling with Cremated Remains
The topic of traveling with cremated remains has been in the news recently thanks to this story about a Cleveland man traveling with his mother’s ashes to Puerto Rico, where she had requested to have her ashes spread. When the man arrived at his destination, he discovered that the TSA had “inspected,” his luggage by opening the urn containing his mother’s cremated remains and spilled them inside his suitcase.
In their own defense, the TSA maintains that “crematory remains are one of the many sensitive items that could be exploited by someone wanting to conceal a dangerous item.” However it is important to note that the Officer who opened the urn (which was sturdy, sealed, and packed tightly) violated TSA policy and broke the law in opening the container. The Web page outlining the TSA policy has been taken down and is presumably under review.
This type of story is especially alarming if you are currently considering the process of transporting or traveling with human ashes, or the cremated remains of a beloved pet. The thought of your loved one’s remains being mishandled, misplaced or disrespected is offensive to contemplate.
To assist you during this time of grief, and to hopefully prevent this type of mishap from happening to you, we have assembled the following resources for families and loved ones to help understand how to transport cremains, and to ensure that your loved one’s final journey is completed with love, care, and as little confusion and stress as possible.
Common Closure Types for Cremation Urns
Spilled ashes can be avoided by understanding how urns are closed, taking additional steps as needed to ensure that the urn is not unintentionally spilled (such as enclosing the urn in an additional package to contain any ashes that may be spilled during travel). Note: While all urns can be permanently sealed with an adhesive glue, keep in mind that the urn would need to be broken if you ever wanted to access the ashes for spreading or transferring into a new urn.
Threaded Closure Lids
These urns have a screw-on lid that must be twisted to open. Ashes in urns with this type of closure will not spill unless the threaded lid is unscrewed and removed.
Typically these types of lids are found on ceramic urns. The lid simply sits on top of the main container, nested inside a fitted lip, and can be easily removed. Ashes in these types of urns should be first placed in a plastic bag to avoid spilling if the lid is removed or knocked off; or if the urn cracks or breaks during transport.
Generally only seen in box urns, hinged lids do not provide a permanent closure, but are more secure than lift-off lids. It is recommended that ashes in hinged lid urns are placed inside an additional container, such as a sealed plastic bag.
Stopper or “cork top” closures can be found on either the bottom or top of an urn. Some stoppers (such as the bottom stopper pictured on the left) are more difficult to remove than others. Urns with these closure types are typically ceramic or glass, although can be made out of any material. If your urn has a stopper closure, and is made of a fragile material, we recommend containing the ashes in a sealed plastic bag prior to inserting into the urn.
Transporting Human Ashes on A Plane
TSA rules allow you to transport ashes on a plane, but each airline’s policy differs, so you’ll need to check with your airline. According to the TSA’s blog, transporting ashes is allowed either in checked or carry on luggage. The cremains will be screened by TSA Officers as part of their standard operating procedure, which includes the cremated remains being passed through the x-ray machine. If the container cannot be cleared using the x-ray, the TSA is authorized to apply other, non-intrusive methods of clearing the urn.
- Carry remains in a proper container. These may include urns so long as they are made of a material that provides a TSA screener a clear view of the contents.
- Containers that are wooden, plastic, cardboard, or fiberboard should be okay. Wood and plastic are specifically recommended by the TSA.
- Avoid metal, stone, or granite containers.
- TSA agents cannot open an urn or container that is unscannable, therefore you and your package will be denied access past the security check point.
- Some airlines do not permit passengers to travel with cremated remains. A brief summary of some of the major airlines’ cremains transportation policies follows. Be sure to visit the individual airline websites for full details.
Transportation policies of major airlines
- American Airlines – “Certain crematory containers such as urns are unable to be screened at security checkpoints by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). An American Airlines airport agent may consult TSA personnel to determine if your container may be transported as carry-on or checked baggage. Please seek guidance from a funeral home to help determine if a particular crematory container will pose any difficulty at a TSA screening point.”
- Delta Airlines – “Cremated remains must be shipped in a crematory urn or funeral urn that is sufficiently protected against breakage.”
- United Airlines – From a customer support email, “Cremated human remains (cremains) accepted as carry on or checked baggage provided: 1. Urn/ashes can pass through x-ray machine and clear explosive trace detection (ETD), 2. Customer has letter from funeral home verifying cremation. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) recommends that customers ship cremated human remains with a private shipper.”
- Continental Airlines – “You may carry on cremated human remains provided you have the appropriate documentation and the remains are packed in a suitable non-metallic container which meets TSA requirements. For more information, please see the TSA Web site.”
Information on transporting a deceased loved one who has not been cremated may be found here. As always, be sure to check with individual airlines for specific policies.
Consider A Sealed, Sturdy, Plastic Container.
An excerpt from www.tsa.gov states “To facilitate screening, we suggest that you purchase a temporary or permanent crematory container made of a scannable material. If the container is made of a material that generates an opaque image, the Transportation Security Office will not be able to clearly determine what is inside the container and the container will note be permitted.”
A simple solution to avoid any issues with clearing your cremains though TSA would be to enclose them in a clear, sturdy plastic container. The cremains can then be transferred into the final urn upon your arrival, or the plastic container can be placed inside directly.
It is important to note that under no circumstances is any TSA Officer authorized to open the container. In the recent incident noted above, the Officer who opened the container during his or her inspection did so in violation of TSA policy.
To ensure that your flight process is as smooth as possible, contact your airline in advance to determine their policies.Make sure you have a copy of the death certificate or certificate of cremation with your cremains, either taped to, or packaged with the container. While the Web page explaining the TSA’s specific requirements for transporting cremains is currently offline, you may still contact the agency with any further questions you have by phoning the TSA Contact Center at 1-866-289-9673.
Transporting Cremated Remains via the US Postal Service
In the United States, the U.S. Postal Service is the only option to legally mail the remains of a loved one. UPS, FedEx and DHL do not accommodate families wishing to transport cremains of their pets or loved ones.
The USPS guidelines are as follows, per the PDF on its website.
According to the USPS official guide to packaging and shipping cremated remains, customers must use Priority Mail Express services to ship cremains within the United States. This service allows you to track your package to its destination. You must also indicate the contents of the package on the outside of the package.
Because the container holding the cremains must be completely sealed, this may not be the final memorial you or your loved one has chosen. However, even if it is only a temporary container, it must be sturdy enough and sealed tightly enough to withstand turbulent shipping without opening.
- 452.2 . Cremated Remains . Human ashes are permitted to be mailed provided they are packaged as required in 453b (see below). The identity of the contents should be marked on the address side. Mailpieces sent to domestic addresses may be sent via USPS Express Mail or Registered Mail service. Mailpieces sent to an international address must be sent via Registered Mail service, and the country listing in the IMM must show that cremated remains are permitted and Registered Mail service must be available for that country.
Understand that using USPS to ship remains is not without risk. In July 2010, a man’s remains were lost somewhere between Arizona and Illinois.
Should you choose to use the USPS to ship cremation remains, the following information should be useful:
- Your package may be sent either to an individual residence or to a local post office.
- Your container must be completely sealed, spill proof, and durable enough to withstand some movement.
- Fill out a Registered Mail Return Receipt Form. The sender will receive this card with the signature of the receiver of the remains.
- You must note on the address line of the USPS shipping label that you are sending cremated remains.
- Ship by Priority Mail.
- Ship remains in the box provided by the funeral home. Usually this is a durable box with plastic lining to prevent spilling.
Transporting Human Ashes Internationally
The best course of action if you wish to transport the cremated remains of your loved one internationally is to contact your country’s embassy in the destination country. They will guide you through the protocol required for proper cremains transport so you have a less stressful travel experience. For a listing of US Embassies in foreign countries, click here.
For information on transporting human remains that have not been cremated, please see our post “What You Need to Know About Transporting a Deceased Loved One.”
After a loved one has been cremated, take a look at our article exploring different options of what you can do with the ashes of a loved one.