How to Ship or Transport Cremated Human Remains

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In today's highly mobile society, family members, relatives, and friends frequently live thousands of miles from each other. Despite this separation, people often desire the burial or scattering of their earthly remains in a location they consider significant, whether in their birthplace, where they went to school, a scenic spot, etc. 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 or "ashes."

This places the burden of getting those cremated remains from one place to another on survivors. Fortunately, you have a few convenient options to ship or transport cremated human remains from Point A to Point B, which this article details.

The Friendly Skies

Most domestic U.S. airlines will carry cremated human remains, either as air cargo or as a personally transported item in conjunction with a specific flight you take, whether in checked baggage or as a carry-on item. (Shipment internationally via air is a bit trickier; please refer to "Crossing the Pond(s)" below for more information.) 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. Unfortunately, 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 in February 2004 a policy 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. You can read the full TSA policy on transporting cremated remains here, 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. (And if even that step proves unfruitful, contact a local funeral director, explain your situation, and ask the firm to 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.)

Again, it is critical that the cremated remains you carry reside within a security-friendly urn or container. Per the TSA: "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 you must take is to check your air carrier's rules and regulations governing the transportation of cremated human remains. 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 (notably United) 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 and regulations governing the transportation of cremated human remains.

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, the authority of the authorizing agent form, etc. As a rule of thumb, it never hurts to bring all of the paperwork you received, just in case!

Crossing the Pond(s)

As noted above, 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 when shipping or transporting cremated remains internationally, so plan accordingly and allow more time to make arrangements (weeks instead of days).

What this means for you is that you should first contact the embassy for the destination country via phone or email, and review its rules and regulations online, if available. (You can search the website for the relevant contact information.) If you feel you understand fully what must be done, and that you can do everything on your own, then go ahead and complete the necessary paperwork -- but it is highly recommended that you work with a funeral home, cremation provider or a company that specializes in the shipment of human remains when shipping cremated remains internationally in order to minimize or prevent delays and frustration. You can also find additional information on the National Funeral Directors Association website.

"Neither Snow nor Rain nor Heat nor Gloom of Night..."

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 human remains: The USPS offers the only legal method of shipping cremated human remains domestically or internationally. UPS, Inc., DHL, and FedEx will not knowingly accept or transport cremated human remains.

What this means for you is that you can ship cremated remains via the USPS provided those "ashes" are packaged "in a strong and durable container" and are sent domestically using the USPS Priority Mail Express service. (Note: As of December 26, 2013, cremated remains may no longer be shipped domestically or internationally using the USPS Registered Mail service.) When shipping internationally, receipt of the cremated remains cannot be "otherwise prohibited by the destination country" and 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, as the consumer, or a USPS "sales and service associate" can affix this label to the outside of your package, adjacent to the shipping address.

Because of the various rules and regulations involved when shipping cremated human remains via the USPS, whether domestically or internationally, you might simply want to take your package to your local post office for assistance, or to the funeral home or cremation provider with which you worked.

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