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.
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.