The Meaning of Inurnment, Interment, and Internment

A woman holding the ashes of a loved one

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The English language can prove tricky, even to native speakers, and listeners often find three similar-but-different words jarring when misused in conversation—particularly if a grieving listener hears the incorrect term at a funeral, burial, or memorial service.

This article offers the definitions for inurnment, interment, and internment, as well as the crucial differences between these commonly confused words.

Inurnment and Inurn

Inurnment (noun): The placement of cremated remains in an urn or other vessel
Inurn (verb): To place cremated remains of a deceased human being or animal into an urn

You might suspect that inurnment is a relatively modern term formed by emulating the word interment because of the increasing popularity of cremation. The Meriam-Webster Dictionary lists its first know use in 1923.

However, the use of inurnment in the English language may date back to 1602 and one of William Shakespeare's most famous plays, "Hamlet." The melancholy prince himself uses the term when asking the ghost of his dead father why it's wandering around when he and others previously "saw thee quietly inurn'd" (Act I, Scene IV).

That said, the use of inurnment in English undoubtedly increased in the second half of the 20th century when cremation as a form of final body disposition started to gain acceptance in the United States.

Today, the English word inurnment generally refers to placing cremated remains or "ashes" into an urn. But in some cultures, such as China, it is not uncommon to disinter the deceased's non-cremated remains from a gravesite after five years and carefully pack the skeletal bones into a large earthenware urn.

Technically, this constitutes an inurnment, and the author personally witnessed such a ceremony in Hong Kong in 2008.

Interment and Inter

Interment (noun): The act or ceremony of placing remains of a deceased human or animal into the ground (burying)

Inter (verb): To place the remains of a deceased human being or animal into the ground, an earth burial

The English word interment arose sometime between 1300–1350 and is commonly used today by funeral service and cemetery professionals alike, as well as the public. Part of this word owes its genesis to the Latin word "terra," or "earth"—which also gave rise to the English words "terrestrial" and "terrace."

Because of its linguistic origin, the English word interment usually refers to the burial of human or animal remains below ground, but this is not a requirement.

While more common in the past, many individuals were interred in a sarcophagus, mausoleum, or tomb above ground. It is even correct to say that "a cremated individual's inurned remains were later interred," whether below ground in a gravesite or above ground in a columbarium niche.

Internment and Intern

Internment (noun): The act of detaining or confining a person or group of people viewed as a threat

Intern (verb): To detain or confine a person or group of people

People arrested for committing a crime are subject to internment—or, in the common vernacular, they are jailed or "tossed in the slammer."

If you remember the significant difference a single "N" can make between "inter" and "intern," you likely will never again forget why someone mourning the death of a loved one might bristle when hearing a relative or friend say, "Yes, her father was interned this morning."

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