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Ancient Roman urn made of alabaster Urna cineraria in alabastro da abbazia delle tre fontane (via laurentina), 0-50 dc ca..JPG
Ancient Roman urn made of alabaster

An urn is a vase, often with a cover, with a typically narrowed neck above a rounded body and a footed pedestal. Describing a vessel as an "urn", as opposed to a vase or other terms, generally reflects its use rather than any particular shape or origin. The term is especially often used for funerary urns, vessels used in burials, either to hold the cremated ashes or as grave goods, but is used in many other contexts.


Large sculpted vases are often called urns, whether placed outdoors, in gardens or as architectural ornaments on buildings, or kept inside. In catering, large vessels for serving tea or coffee are often called "tea-urns", even when they are metal cylinders of purely functional design.

Urns are also a common reference in thought experiments in probability wherein marbles or balls of different colors are used to represent different results and the urn represents the "container" of the whole set of possible states.


Ancient Greek cremation urn ca. 850 B.C. Geometric Cremation urn Athens Agora Museum.jpg
Ancient Greek cremation urn ca. 850 B.C.

Funerary urns (also called cinerary urns and burial urns) have been used by many civilizations. After death, corpses are cremated, and the ashes are collected and put in an urn. Pottery urns, dating from about 7000 BC, have been found in an early Jiahu site in China, where a total of 32 burial urns are found, [1] and another early finds are in Laoguantai, Shaanxi. [2] There are about 700 burial urns unearthed over the Yangshao (5000–3000 BC) areas and consisting more than 50 varieties of form and shape. The burial urns were used mainly for children, but also sporadically for adults. [3]

The Urnfield culture (c. 1300 BC – 750 BC), a late Bronze Age culture of central Europe, takes its name from its large cemeteries of urn burials. The discovery of a Bronze Age urn burial in Norfolk, England, prompted Sir Thomas Browne to describe the antiquities found. He expanded his study to survey burial and funerary customs, ancient and current, and published it as Hydriotaphia or Urn Burial (1658).

In ancient Greece, cremation was usual, and the ashes typically placed in a painted Greek vase. In particular the lekythos , a shape of vase, was used for holding oil in funerary rituals. Romans placed the urns in a niche in a collective tomb called a columbarium (literally, dovecote). The interior of a dovecote usually has niches to house doves. Cremation urns were also commonly used in early Anglo Saxon England, [4] and in many Pre-Columbian cultures.

In some later European traditions, a king's heart, and sometimes other organs, could be placed in one or more urns upon his death, as happened with King Otto of Bavaria in 1916, and buried in a different place from the body, to symbolize a particular affection for the place by the departed.

In the modern funeral industry, cremation urns of varying quality, elaborateness, and cost are offered, and urns are another source of potential profit for an industry concerned that a trend toward cremation might threaten profits from traditional burial ceremonies. [5] [6] Biodegradable urns are sometimes used for both human and animal burial. They are made from eco-friendly materials such as recycled or handmade paper, salt, cellulose or other natural products that are capable of decomposing back into natural elements, and sometimes include a seed intended to grow into a tree at the site of the burial. [7] [8] [9]

Besides the traditional funeral or cremation ashes urns, it may also be possible to keep a part of the ashes of the loved one or beloved pet in keepsake urns or ash jewellery, although this might be banned in some localities as the law of certain countries may prohibit keeping any human remains in a private residence. It is even, in some places, possible to place the ashes of two people in so-called companion urns. Cremation or funeral urns are made from a variety of materials such as wood, nature stone, ceramic, glass, or steel.


The Derveni Krater, one of very few large Ancient Greek bronze vessels to survive Cratere de Derveni 0001.jpg
The Derveni Krater, one of very few large Ancient Greek bronze vessels to survive

A figural urn is a style of vase or larger container where the basic urn shape, of either a classic amphora or a crucible style, is ornamented with figures. These may be attached to the main body, forming handles or simply extraneous decorations, or may be shown in relief on the body itself.

Trophies, tea and fashion

The Ashes urn. Ashes Urn.jpg
The Ashes urn.

The Ashes, the prize in the biennial Test cricket competition between England and Australia, are contained in a miniature urn.

Urns are a common form of architectural detail and garden ornament. Well-known ornamental urns include the Waterloo Vase.

A tea urn is a heated metal container traditionally used to brew tea or boil water in large quantities in factories, canteens or churches. They are not usually found in domestic use. Like a samovar it has a small tap near the base for extracting either tea or hot water. Unlike an electric water boiler, tea may be brewed in the vessel itself, although they are equally likely to be used to fill a large teapot.

In Neoclassical furniture, it was a large wooden vase-like container which was usually set on a pedestal on either side of a side table. This was the characteristic of Adam designs and also of Hepplewhite's work. Sometimes they were "knife urns", where the top lifted off, and cutlery was stored inside. Urns were also used as decorative turnings at the cross points of stretchers in 16th and 17th century furniture designs. The urn and the vase were often set on the central pedestal in a "broken" or "swan's" neck pediment. [10] "Knife urns" placed on pedestals flanking a dining-room sideboard were an English innovation for high-style dining rooms of the late 1760s. They went out of fashion in the following decade, in favour of knife boxes that were placed on the sideboard.

A 1720s oil-on-copper depiction of a fantasy garden urn; a detail of a larger English painting of a Knight of the Garter. 1720s English fantasy garden urn.jpg
A 1720s oil-on-copper depiction of a fantasy garden urn; a detail of a larger English painting of a Knight of the Garter.

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cremation</span> Burning of a dead body as a disposal method

Cremation is a method of final disposition of a dead body through burning.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Burial</span> Ritual act of placing a dead person into the ground

Burial, also known as interment or inhumation, is a method of final disposition whereby a dead body is placed into the ground, sometimes with objects. This is usually accomplished by excavating a pit or trench, placing the deceased and objects in it, and covering it over. A funeral is a ceremony that accompanies the final disposition. Humans have been burying their dead since shortly after the origin of the species. Burial is often seen as indicating respect for the dead. It has been used to prevent the odor of decay, to give family members closure and prevent them from witnessing the decomposition of their loved ones, and in many cultures it has been seen as a necessary step for the deceased to enter the afterlife or to give back to the cycle of life.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Coffin</span> Container for transport, laying out and the burial of a corpse

A coffin is a funerary box used for viewing or keeping a corpse, either for burial or cremation.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Urnfield culture</span> c. 1300–750 BC archaeological culture of Central Europe

The Urnfield culture was a late Bronze Age culture of Central Europe, often divided into several local cultures within a broader Urnfield tradition. The name comes from the custom of cremating the dead and placing their ashes in urns, which were then buried in fields. The first usage of the name occurred in publications over grave sites in southern Germany in the late 19th century. Over much of Europe, the Urnfield culture followed the Tumulus culture and was succeeded by the Hallstatt culture. Some linguists and archaeologists have associated this culture with the Proto-Celtic language, or a pre-Celtic language family.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Columbarium</span> Place for the respectful and usually public storage of cinerary urns

A columbarium is a structure for the reverential and usually public storage of funerary urns, holding cremated remains of the deceased.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Japanese funeral</span> Overview of Japanese funerals

The majority of funerals in Japan include a wake, the cremation of the deceased, a burial in a family grave, and a periodic memorial service. According to 2007 statistics, 99.81% of deceased Japanese are cremated.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Hydria</span> Type of Greek pottery used for carrying water

The hydria is a form of Greek pottery from between the late Geometric period and the Hellenistic period. The etymology of the word hydria was first noted when it was stamped on a hydria itself, its direct translation meaning ‘jug’.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Situla</span>

Situla, from the Latin word for bucket or pail, is the term in archaeology and art history for a variety of elaborate bucket-shaped vessels from the Iron Age to the Middle Ages, usually with a handle at the top. All types may be highly decorated, most characteristically with reliefs in bands or friezes running round the vessel.

Geometric art is a phase of Greek art, characterized largely by geometric motifs in vase painting, that flourished towards the end of the Greek Dark Ages, c. 900–700 BC. Its center was in Athens, and from there the style spread among the trading cities of the Aegean. The Greek Dark Ages lasted from c. 1100 to 750 BC and include two periods, the Protogeometric period and the Geometric period, in reference to the characteristic pottery style. The vases had various uses or purposes within Greek society, including, but not limited to, funerary vases and symposium vases.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Typology of Greek vase shapes</span>

The pottery of ancient Greece has a long history and the form of Greek vase shapes has had a continuous evolution from Minoan pottery down to the Hellenistic period. As Gisela Richter puts it, the forms of these vases find their "happiest expression" in the 5th and 6th centuries BC, yet it has been possible to date vases thanks to the variation in a form’s shape over time, a fact particularly useful when dating unpainted or plain black-gloss ware.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Etruscan art</span> Art movement

Etruscan art was produced by the Etruscan civilization in central Italy between the 10th and 1st centuries BC. From around 750 BC it was heavily influenced by Greek art, which was imported by the Etruscans, but always retained distinct characteristics. Particularly strong in this tradition were figurative sculpture in terracotta, wall-painting and metalworking especially in bronze. Jewellery and engraved gems of high quality were produced.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bronze- and Iron-Age Poland</span> Archaeology of Poland 4400-2000 years ago

The Bronze and Iron Age cultures in Poland are known mainly from archeological research. Early Bronze Age cultures in Poland began around 2400–2300 BCE, while the Iron Age commenced in approximately 750–700 BCE. The Iron Age archeological cultures no longer existed by the start of the Common Era. The subject of the ethnicity and linguistic affiliation of the groups living in Central Europe at that time is, given the absence of written records, speculative, and accordingly there is considerable disagreement. In Poland the Lusatian culture, spanning both the Bronze and Iron Ages, became particularly prominent. The most famous archeological finding from that period is the Biskupin fortified settlement (gord) on the lake from which it takes its name, representing the Lusatian culture of the early Iron Age.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Latial culture</span>

The Latial culture ranged approximately over ancient Old Latium. The Iron Age Latial culture coincided with the arrival in the region of a people who spoke Old Latin. The culture was likely therefore to identify a phase of the socio-political self-consciousness of the Latin tribe, during the period of the kings of Alba Longa and the foundation of the Roman Kingdom.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ancient Greek funeral and burial practices</span> Funerary practices of ancient Greece

Ancient Greek funerary practices are attested widely in literature, the archaeological record, and in ancient Greek art. Finds associated with burials are an important source for ancient Greek culture, though Greek funerals are not as well documented as those of the ancient Romans.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Roman funerary art</span> Historical Roman art genre

Roman funerary art changed throughout the course of the Roman Republic and the Empire and comprised many different forms. There were two main burial practices used by the Romans throughout history, one being cremation, another inhumation. The vessels used for these practices include sarcophagi, ash chests, urns, and altars. In addition to these, mausoleums, stele, and other monuments were also used to commemorate the dead. The method by which Romans were memorialized was determined by social class, religion, and other factors. While monuments to the dead were constructed within Roman cities, the remains themselves were interred outside the cities.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Nagyrév culture</span> Bronze Age culture in present-day Hungary

The Nagyrév culture was a Bronze-Age culture that existed in what is now Nagyrév, Hungary. It existed alongside the Vatya culture and Hatvan cultures and was eventually superseded by the latter. The main style of pottery was a one or two handed cup with a tall funnel neck that is made in a black burnished ware.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Death in ancient Greek art</span>

The theme of death within ancient Greek art has continued from the Early Bronze Age all the way through to the Hellenistic period. The Greeks used architecture, pottery, and funerary objects as different mediums through which to portray death. These depictions include mythical deaths, deaths of historical figures, and commemorations of those who died in war. This page includes various examples of the different types of mediums in which death is presented in Greek art.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ancient Greek funerary vases</span> Ceramic vessels used as grave markers

Ancient Greek funerary vases are decorative grave markers made in ancient Greece that were designed to resemble liquid-holding vessels. These decorated vases were placed on grave sites as a mark of elite status. There are many types of funerary vases, such as amphorae, kraters, oinochoe, and kylix cups, among others. One famous example is the Dipylon amphora. Every-day vases were often not painted, but wealthy Greeks could afford luxuriously painted ones. Funerary vases on male graves might have themes of military prowess, or athletics. However, allusions to death in Greek tragedies was a popular motif. Famous centers of vase styles include Corinth, Lakonia, Ionia, South Italy, and Athens.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Thai royal funeral</span>

Thai royal funerals are elaborate events, organised as royal ceremonies akin to state funerals. They are held for deceased members of the Royal Family, and consist of numerous rituals which typically span several months to over a year. Featuring a mixture of Buddhist and animist beliefs, as well as Hindu symbolism, these rituals include the initial rites that take place after death, a lengthy period of lying-in-state, during which Buddhist ceremonies take place, and a final cremation ceremony. For the highest-ranking royalty, the cremation ceremonies are grand public spectacles, featuring the pageantry of large funeral processions and ornate purpose-built funeral pyres or temporary crematoria known as merumat or men. The practices date to at least the 17th century, during the time of the Ayutthaya Kingdom. Today, the cremation ceremonies are held in the royal field of Sanam Luang in the historic centre of Bangkok.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Freud Corner (Golders Green Crematorium)</span> Crematorium in North London

Freud Corner is the name used for the place within Golders Green Crematorium in North London, where the funerary urns of Sigmund Freud and many other members of the Freud family are deposited.


  1. Hu, Yaowu. "Elemental Analysis of Ancient Human Bones from the Jiahu Site," in Acta Anthropologica Sinica, 2005, Vol. 24, No. 2:158–165. ISSN   1000-3193, p. 159.
  2. Luan, Fengshi. "On the Origin and Development of Prehistoric Coffin and Funeral Custom," in Cultural Relices, 2006, No. 6:49–55. ISSN   0511-4772, pp. 49–55.
  3. Wang, Xiao. "On the Early Funeral Coffin in Central China," in Cultural Relices of Central China, 1997, No. 3:93–100. ISSN   1003-1731. pp. 93-96.
  4. See, for example, the Wold Newton urns — www.woldnewton.net.
  5. Jessica Mitford, The American Way of Death Revisited (Random House, 2011), ISBN   978-0307809391, pp. 115-116. Excerpts available at Google Books.
  6. Stephen R. Prothero, Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America (University of California Press, 2002), ISBN   978-0520929746, pp. 196ff. Excerpts available at Google Books.
  7. "Biodegradable urns use human remains to grow trees" CBC News, October 21, 2012.
  8. "RIP: Recycle in Peace", Discovery News, May 17, 2011.
  9. "Biodegradable Urn Lets You Go Green, Even Six Feet Under", Time , May 17, 2011.
  10. Martin Pegler, The Dictionary of Interior Design.