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Staying connected: Columbaria unite church families Mallory McCall, Jun 11, 2010
PHOTO BY JOHN McCORMACK
The columbarium at Boston Avenue United Methodist Church in Tulsa, Okla.
By Mallory McCall Staff Writer
Longtime members Sue and Wes Smith of the First United Methodist Church in Denton, Texas, say they want to remain present in their beloved church—even after they die. So they were among the first to reserve space in the church’s columbarium—a place where urns of cremated remains are stored in niches.
A growing number of United Methodist churches are developing a columbarium as a less expensive and greener alternative to being buried in a traditional church cemetery. First UMC in Denton was ahead of the curve in providing a way for its members to stay connected to their congregation forever.
About 15 years ago Ms. Smith read an advertisement in the church newspaper for a niche in the (then-new) columbarium. She added her name to the first-come, first-serve list and secured the first two niches for herself and her husband.
“I never really planned on being cremated,” said Ms. Smith, “but since I have no thoughts about my body after death, I thought this would be a good thing to do.”
Before reserving niches in the columbarium, the Smiths, who have been members since 1959, had made no previous burial arrangements—so spending a couple hundred dollars for a beloved place in the chapel’s foyer just “made sense.”
Northaven United Methodist Church in Dallas launched its plans two years ago for a columbarium. From the beginning, the design team knew they wanted more than just a columbarium—they wanted something that reflected the cycle of life. Their answer: the Celebration Garden.
The circular design of the garden (phase one was completed last fall) intentionally symbolizes different stages of life. The second phase will include a fountain that represents birth in the Christian faith and serves as a baptismal font. Phase one has a spiraling prayer labyrinth that symbolizes the twists and turns of life, and the granite columbarium that both memorializes the end of life and celebrates eternal life.
Northaven members Dotti and Tom Timmins have already selected a niche for their ashes, but they are not waiting for a funeral to take advantage of the Celebration Garden. Ms. Timmins met her children for coffee there before church on Easter Sunday because she was so excited to share it with the people she loves.
She is passionate about the idea of burying people close to where they’d want to be.
“Our church family is very close to us,” she said, “and we want to stay close to them.” Plus, she hopes having her ashes in the garden’s columbarium will bring her family back to a place she loves.
During the Middle Ages and Victorian era it was common for churches to have cemeteries on their property. It was a “cradle-to-grave” ministry, said Bill Freeman, owner of Omni Marble Dallas who spent years researching columbaria and patenting his own niche design. But urbanization, along with bigger churches and parking lots, left many churches landlocked and unable to provide the space needed to keep the deceased congregants close to their church family.
The alternative: Build a columbarium.
By constructing a storage structure for the ashes of congregants, churches can conserve precious land, earn money from the sales of niches, and most importantly, keep the congregation united.
The tradition of having the dead in the church is an ancient one, says the Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards, director of worship resources for the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Discipleship. “The dead being physically present with the living during worship has always been important to the Christian faith.”
Mr. Burton-Edwards believes columbaria allow a church to remain closely connected to those who die, especially when a church cemetery is not feasible due to a lack of space or certain city ordinances.
The United Methodist Church does not insist on burial as the only acceptable means of committing one’s earthly remains to God. In fact, some United Methodists believe being inurned in a columbarium within the church demonstrates one’s faithfulness to God and reaffirms the belief that God’s children return to God after death.
There is no typical style or design for a church columbarium. Some are nestled around the sanctuary; others are located outside. Some are standalone structures while others include meditation gardens or chapels. Some have enough space for 100 niches while others can accommodate more than 1,000.
United Methodist churches that build a columbarium are accommodating a national trend. In 2008, roughly 35 percent of deceased persons in the U.S. were cremated. The Cremation Association of North America (CANA) predicts this number will rise to 44 percent by 2015 and up to 56 percent by 2025.
Cost is a big reason for the increase in cremations, experts say. It’s simply the cheaper option. The National Funeral Directors Association puts the average funeral with a casket at more than $7,300—not including the cost of the cemetery plot. But smart shoppers can buy a cremation for less than $1,000 and a niche for between $1,500 and $5,000 (the more expensive ones hold two urns).
Mr. Freeman, the niche designer, says cremation has also become a popular option for the environmentally concerned because it conserves land and uses fewer chemicals. About 500 urns can fit in the space taken up by one grave, he said. In 2007, CANA reported that two-thirds of those who died in “green” states like Oregon and Washington were cremated.
There’s still some pushback on cremation for some churchgoers, said Dona Mullaney, administrative assistant at First United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg, Fla. But for the most part, she added, people are accepting this modernized concept of a church graveyard.
At her congregation, some members have even put their cemetery plots up for sale and are opting instead for a niche in the church’s courtyard columbarium, snuggled between the sanctuary and the chapel.
The columbarium not only provides an intimate memorial at an affordable price, it’s also been a successful investment for the church, Ms. Mullaney said. Presales of niches paid for construction costs seven years ago. Today, about $2,500 of the $3,000 niche fee is considered a donation to the church; the rest covers the nameplate engraving and garden upkeep.
“The cost is nothing, the space is there and the volunteers are willing,” she said. “In our case, it’s an easy way to make money.”
While survivors have other options for handling cremated remains—spreading them around a favorite place or storing them in an urn and perhaps winding up forgotten in the attic—memorializing them in a columbarium helps maintain a connection to their church.
“The beautiful thing about a columbarium,” Mr. Freeman said, “is that it returns a lost ministry, ultimately bringing the church community together.”
Sue and Wes Smith are hoping for just that. “Hopefully being inurned in the church will bring our sons home to the church and God we love,” said Ms. Smith.