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Should I Say Ashes or Cremated Remains?

Have you ever found yourself trying to sound suave or sophisticated and then you totally use the wrong word?

It’s no secret that the English language can be tricky and epic word fails happen all the time. The wrong word can make even the smartest person sound dumb and it can be funny!

The funeral industry is full of words that have been misused or confused. Some have been incorrectly repeated for so long that they are now assumed to be correct. Let’s explore a few of the common ones.

There is one word that drives me absolutely nuts –ashes! I am not talking about campfire ashes or fireplace ashes. I am talking about human cremated remains.

Ashes or Cremated Remains?

I will admit that it makes sense to think that you are left with ashes following a fire and that is true in most circumstances however that is NOT the case when we are discussing cremation.

Contrary to popular belief, cremated remains are not ashes in the usual sense. After the cremation is completed, the dry bone fragments are swept from the retort, cooled and then further reduced by a processing machine. This machine is basically a high-speed blender, rotating device or type of grinder. I have even worked in a crematorium that used the good old-fashioned heavy metal balls! Picture two canon balls in a small dryer-like enclosure full of bone pieces….needless to say the result was not as “ashy” as other methods.

Depending on the machine used; the processing renders the bone fragments somewhere between course sand-like texture and fine powdery dust. These are cremated remains, not ashes. And for heavens sake please don’t let me catch you calling them cremains!


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While we are at it, let’s look at some other funeral industry jargon.


The tombstone, gravestone, monument, headstone,

grave marker conundrum:


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tombstone should refer to the stone lid of a sarcophagus.

A gravestone is the stone slab that is laid over a grave.

A monument is defined as a statue or other structure placed by or over a grave in memory of the dead.

A headstone is an upright stone marker placed at the head end of a grave.  In most cases it will be inscribed with the deceased’s name, date of birth, and date of death.  (pictured above)


Historically very different; these days all those terms are used interchangeably to mean a grave marker.

A grave marker can be an upright tablet or flat lawn level marker that is made of granite or bronze.


Hearse or Funeral Coach or Ecto-1?

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hearse is a large funeral vehicle (suped up station wagon) used to carry the deceased in a casket to a cemetery.

In funeral industry language a hearse is often called a funeral coach. It’s the same car, just someone decided along the way that the word hearse sounded too macabre.

The Ecto-1 was a 1959 Cadillac professional chassis, built by the Miller-Meteor company. It is an ambulance/hearse combination.


Coffin, Casket or Sarcophagus?


Coffins are tapered at the head and foot and are wide at the shoulders. They have six sides plus a top and a bottom and are made of wood.  By the 19th century, the traditional form-fitting coffin was deemed too morose for viewing purposes.

Caskets are rectangular in shape and are usually constructed of high quality timbers or metals. They have four sides plus a top and a bottom and have a hinged lid.

Some believe that caskets don’t have the negative connotation that is associated with coffins; others like the Dracula-esque vibe the word coffin exudes.  Either way, a casket and a coffin are different.

Sarcophagus or (sarcophagi plural) is a box-like funeral receptacle for a corpse, most commonly carved in stone, and usually displayed above ground.


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Sympathy and Empathy


Sympathy is acknowledging another person’s feelings. “I am sorry for your loss” means you understand the other person is grieving and want to recognize that fact.

Empathy is having the ability to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and relate to how the person feels, at least in part because you’ve experienced those feelings yourself.

There is a huge difference and I strongly encourage you to grasp this.  Sympathy is passive; empathy is active.


As they say, knowledge is power so the fact that you have read this far means you have become more powerful – at least to me!

Before today did you know that cremated remains were not ashes?  Are there any words or terms in your industry that are misused and drive you nuts?

Leave a comment, I would love to learn them.


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