Create free obituary

Blog Categories

August 8, 2018 Brigitte Ganger

Let's Go Casket Shopping

Everything you need to know about caskets, coffins and urns

Let's Go Casket Shopping
Until you've lost a loved one, it's difficult to know exactly what type of urn, casket or coffin to buy. (Shutterstock)

Though I knew mom was at the end of her life for several weeks before she died, nothing could have prepared me for the moment I had to make a decision about her remains.

Faced with rows upon rows of caskets, coffins and urns, I had few answers to any of the funeral director's questions—and a ton of questions. My sister and I knew she wanted to be cremated, but nothing beyond that. Would we spread the ashes, or store them? Would an urn be displayed prominently or stored somewhere discreetly? Would we prefer a cemetery columbarium for the urn's safekeeping? We had no idea.

We examined a large selection of urns, and other containers for the storage of cremains. Still unsure, we each flipped through thick catalogues of death merchandise, frozen with the paralysis of too many options. 

Burial or cremation?

The first—and toughest—question to answer is how the body will be prepared. If the deceased person left instructions regarding their final wishes, they should be honored. If no such instructions were left, you need to make a judgment call on their behalf. Discuss these arrangements with those who were closest to the deceased person. It's possible that they left verbal instructions with someone in a private conversation. 

A casket is rectangular, and offers a soft bed for the body's final rest. (Shutterstock)


Caskets and coffins are suitable for a burial, and both serve the same purpose. A casket is a burial container of typically higher quality than a coffin. Caskets are almost exclusively used in the United States, though coffins are still used in other parts of the world. 


Caskets are usually rectangular in shape, and can be used to elegantly display a deceased person in an open casket viewing ceremony. They're constructed of either wood or metal, with fabric or cushioning creating the bed within. 


Coffins are tapered near the head, with six edges in total. In North America, coffins aren't widely used for funerals. It's possible to order a coffin for burial, but a casket serves the same purpose. 

Coffins have six sides, forming the sloped shape of shoulder and head. They are not widely used for burials in North America nowadays. (Shutterstock)

Environmental impact

Burials are not kind to mother earth. Ornate caskets with metal and fabrics do not decompose over time in a way that allows the earth to use the nutrients of a body. When shopping for a casket, it's also time to decide how you would prefer the body to decompose. A metal casket will protect the body from natural erosion, whereas a wooden eco-friendly casket or shroud will allow the body to decompose naturally.

This is a personal decision. Weigh your loved one's values, and that will help you reach a choice you can feel comfortable with. 

Embalming and cosmetology

If your loved one is to be displayed in an open casket service or visitation, some level of embalming will likely be needed as well. You can discuss the process with a mortician to make the best decision for your loved one that will work with the specific funeral arrangements. 

Depending on the manner of death, and length of time between the death and the viewing, the body may also need to undergo the services of a mortuary cosmetologist. This process preserves the dignity and character of the dead, while also making guests gto the funeral feel more comfortable with the appearance of a body.  

Embalming and cosmetics should be considered before making the decision to host an open-casket viewing, as they will add extra expenses to the funeral budget. 


There are several different options for the final destination of cremated remains. If you don't purchase a container, most crematoriums will send your loved one's cremains home in a cardboard or plain plastic container, with the ashes contained in a sealed plastic bag. Ashes may be spread in a meaningful place, buried or stored. Many people keep their loved one's urn in the family home, or purchase a columbarium spot in a cemetery for safekeeping. 


There are many kinds of urns available to choose from. A traditional urn is made of metal or another sturdy material. Though any container can act as an urn, it's wise to get an urn that seals tightly and protects the cremains.

Urns are often decorative as well. There are endless patterns, images and designs to choose from, so you can reflect the personality of the deceased person in their urn. It is also possible to commission a custom urn. Companies such as In the Light Urns will work with you to create the perfect container for your loved one's cremains.  

A lovely and environmentally friendly way of handling urns is to purchase a biodegradable urn, or living urn. Bios Urn is a company that specializes in plantable urns that can grow the cremains of your loved one into a tree.

Spreading cremains

The one thing I wish I'd known before going shopping for death merch is this: You don't need a fancy or expensive urn if you are planning on spreading your loved one's cremains.

My sister and I ultimately purchased a large metal urn for our mother, and two matching keepsake urns. A month later we spread her ashes in the garden, rendering the large decorative urn useless. We sold it at an estate sale a couple years later.

Check the local laws for information about spreading ashes. In general, you'll need the property owner's permission to spread cremains. There are also laws in place that dictate how spreading ashes in the ocean should proceed. 

If you are looking for a creative alternative to urns and spreading cremains, check out our article Space Travel, Living Urns and Beyond: Modern Alternatives to the Traditional Burial.

Honor your loved one with a memorial that matches their life

No one wants to go casket shopping. Unfortunately, anyone can wind up in the overwhelming position of having to choose death accessories for their loved one. Hopefully these shopping tips will help you make informed decisions if you're ever in the position of making the decision about a loved one's final disposition. 

Create an Obituary

Your loved one had a remarkable life. Tell their story, and we’ll publish it online for free.

After creating an online memorial, you can also publish in print in any of over 6,000 newspapers across North America.

Get started for free
Discover our blog
View more