How to Ship or Transport Cremated Human Remains

A Package marked "Urgent"

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It is not uncommon for people to specify where they would like their cremated remains (ashes) to be distributed, or for family members to choose a meaningful spot once the person has passed away. While a licensed funeral director usually handles the shipment of human remains for burial elsewhere, an immediate family member generally assumes possession of a loved one's cremated remains. Fortunately, there are several options if honoring your loved one's wishes requires shipping or transporting cremated human remains from Point A to Point B.

Airline Policies

Most domestic U.S. airlines will transport cremated human remains, either as air cargo or in your checked or carry-on baggage. Unfortunately, sending or transporting an urn or container bearing the cremated remains of a loved one requires more planning than simply showing up at the airport before your flight, urn in hand. There are many rules and regulations governing the transport of cremated human remains for which you must plan.

Following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) cracked down on everything transported by or carried onto flights originating within the United States. Unfamiliarity with the physical appearance of "cremains" (funeral industry jargon for "cremated remains") often triggered an unnecessary but understandable response from airport security personnel, delaying flights and frustrating passengers. To address these delays, the TSA enacted a policy in 2004 requiring the scanning of every cremation container by an X-ray machine.

What this means for you is that you must ensure that the container bearing the cremated remains of your loved one is "security friendly" as defined by the TSA. Generally, this means a thin-walled, lightweight urn constructed of plastic or wood, but many cremation container manufacturers today now indicate if their products are TSA-friendly. If you are unsure, contact the funeral home, website, or manufacturer from which you bought the container. If necessary, a funeral home can transfer the cremated remains into a security-friendly temporary cremation container for transport. (Some funeral homes will do this at no cost to you, while others might require a fee, so be sure to ask beforehand.) If a container is made of a material that prevents screeners from clearly seeing what is inside, the container will not be allowed through the checkpoint. Out of respect for the deceased, screeners will not open a container, even if requested by the passenger.

The next step is to check your air carrier's rules and regulations. Most major domestic airlines will carry cremated human remains, either as air cargo, within checked baggage, or as a personally transported carry-on item, but in order to avoid delays, do not assume your airline will do so. Some carriers, such as Delta and Southwest, clearly state their rules and requirements governing the shipment of human remains on their websites, while other airlines do not. Therefore, take the time to check your airline's website and/or contact your air carrier via phone or email to ask about their rules.

Finally, you should carry with you original signed versions of all relevant paperwork you received from the funeral home or your cremation provider, such as the death certificate, the cremation authorization form, the cremated-remains receipt, and the authority of the authorizing agent form.

International Shipping Policies

Shipping or transporting cremated human remains internationally via air–whether as air cargo, in checked baggage or as a carry-on item—can prove trickier than transporting it domestically. The reason for this is that each destination country adds another layer of rules and regulations to which you must adhere, so plan accordingly and allow more time to make arrangements (weeks instead of days).

You should first contact the embassy for the destination country via phone or email, and review its rules and regulations. It is highly recommended that you work with a funeral home, cremation provider, or a company that specializes in shipping cremated remains internationally in order to minimize or prevent delays and frustration.

Using the Post Office

Despite the many challenges it now faces from other delivery services, the United States Postal Service (USPS) continues to best all of its competitors when it comes to shipping human remains. The USPS offers the only legal method of shipping cremated human remains domestically or internationally. UPS, DHL, and FedEx will not knowingly accept or transport them.

You can ship cremated remains via the USPS provided they are packaged in a strong and durable container and are sent domestically using the USPS Priority Mail Express service. When shipping internationally, cremated remains must be sent using the USPS Priority Mail Express International Service.

In addition, in late August 2013, the USPS implemented "Label 139"—a non-trackable sticker designed to increase visibility during USPS processing and transportation of packages containing cremated human remains. Either you or a USPS sales and service associate can affix this label to the outside of your package, adjacent to the shipping address.

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