Imagine flying your mother’s ashes home and instead finding them spilled in your checked suitcase.
A few travelers have shared horror stories about trying to carry the cremated remains of a family member to a final resting spot or to be scattered in a special place. Some have described the shock of watching airport screeners pull the urn from their bag and plunk it down in an undignified manner on the X-ray conveyer belt for all the other travelers to see.
It is perfectly legal to travel by air with cremated remains, but it is more complicated than you might expect. It requires planning to get through security and on the plane without making an already emotionally difficult trip even worse.
Many families rely on a funeral director to handle all the arrangements when shipping a casket by air, but they may be more likely to handle transportation of ashes themselves.
Airlines and the federal government say they don’t track the number of passengers who check or carry cremated remains, but the practice is almost certain to grow. Cremations surpassed burials in the U.S. several years ago and are expected to be used after nearly 80% of deaths by 2035, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.
Most airlines will accept cremated remains as cargo, in checked bags or in a carry-on. Policies and possible fees will differ among airlines, so be sure to check their websites or call.
American Airlines, for example, says it prefers metal containers or urns that are wrapped in plastic and a cardboard package that is at least 12 inches in each dimension.
The next step is getting to and through airport security.
The Transportation Security Administration screens both checked bags and those that passengers carry with them. TSA spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein recommends carrying remains on the plane.
“Checked bags are subjected to rapid and sometimes rough movement along a series of conveyor belts” between the terminal and the plane, she said.
Remains that are placed in carry-on bags must be screened by X-ray, and that can create problems when the ashes are in a metal urn. Farbstein said if the X-ray operator can’t see through the container and officers can’t tell whether anything inside is prohibited, they won’t let the remains through because they “could be exploited by someone wanting to conceal a dangerous item.”
TSA guidelines say that officers will not open containers with cremated remains, even if the passenger asks them. But they can approve an urn by swabbing for traces of explosives, Farbstein said.
“Glass, ceramic, wood or plastic containers are the best because they can be X-rayed,” says Keith King, who handles customer calls for Everlasting Memories, a Montana company that sells urns online.
Some people will use one container to carry cremains, as they are called in the industry, and another for burial or scattering of the ashes.
“A lot of funeral homes will provide a temporary container that holds the ashes,” King says. “People travel with that temporary container and then they’ll purchase a metal urn or another type after they get to their destination.”
It’s a good idea to have the death certificate and certificate of cremation with you, although not every airline requires it. Those forms are essential when carrying remains to another country, according to a spokeswoman for the National Funeral Directors Association.
Airlines say their employees might be able to tell you before you get in line whether TSA will allow your container through the checkpoint. You might have to check it after all.
If that sounds like too much trouble, or you don’t plan to accompany the remains, the post office says it can help. But here again, there are rules and procedures.
The Postal Service requires a sealed, leakproof inner container — it must be a funeral urn for shipments to other countries. The outer box needs to carry a special label. Shipments within the U.S. need to go via Priority Mail Express.
FedEx and UPS prohibit shipment of cremated remains.