Following a growing trend in American culture toward cremating the bodies of loved ones, St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church is in the process of installing an outdoor columbarium at the southeast corner of their church building.

The 36 niches in the installation will each be able to hold two urns of ashes or cremains, as they are now called, and will supplement the smaller columbarium located off the building’s main seating area in the side chapel altar. Laura Jordahl, who has been a member of St. Christopher’s for 22 years, said the chapel columbarium holds the cremations of 40 people and does not have room for more.

“I’ve been active at the church for 35 years,” said Martin Dunlavey, another congregant, “and that columbarium in the chapel certainly predates me. I’m sure we’ve been piling peoples’ ashes in there since the church’s founding over 100 years ago, but it’s been getting full and perhaps 10 years ago we started discussion about another columbarium.”

Two things sparked the building of the outdoor resting place. One is the trend toward cremation instead of being embalmed, displayed in a casket and buried in a cemetery.

Rev. Eric Biddy, St. Christopher’s rector, said in 60 percent of the funerals he has presided over in the three years he’s been at the church, the body has been cremated. Lynne Williams at Drechsler, Brown & Williams Funeral Home said about 40 percent of their business involves cremation.

An August 2014 online article in Huffpost reported, “In 1958, only about one in 28 Americans were cremated upon death. The cremation rate in 2012 was 43.5%. That’s a 1,238.88% increase in the number of people choosing cremation over a span of just 65 years.” According to the article, it is possible to incorporate the cremains in an hourglass, a vinyl record, a synthetic diamond ring, teddy bears, pencils and stained glass. The cremains can even be mixed with tattoo ink. Nationwide 1/3 of the families bury the cremains of their loved ones, 1/3 scatter them, and 1/3 keep them.

Rev. Biddy said most have religious reasons for having their cremains placed in or next to a church. 

He said a “dear parishioner” left $7,500 to the church with the stipulation that it be used as seed money for a columbarium. “The reason she gave,” Biddy explained, “is that we have a front yard outside the church, and she wanted to watch the children play there from her niche.” 

The construction of the outdoor columbarium is estimated to cost $24,000.

Many others have less fanciful reasons. “One is the old idea of being buried in sacred ground,” Biddy said. “Second is that for most people a funeral is a kind of homecoming because the church for them is that nexus where heaven and earth have touched and where they want to rest until the final resurrection of the dead into glory. We have people who have been members here for 60-70 years. They may have changed houses 15 times in that period, but this place has been the same.”

Biddy said the Episcopal Church doesn’t see much difference theologically between being buried in a casket and having cremains interred.

“The episcopal liturgy for the burial of the dead,” he said, “is an Easter liturgy. It’s all about the resurrection. The pascal candle [first lit at the Easter Vigil] stands next to the body.”

The columbarium, which is scheduled to be installed and faced with granite by the end of November, will eventually be surrounded by a prayer garden, planted next spring. 

“We want the columbarium to be set in a beautiful place where anyone can sit and pray,” Biddy said. “[It] ties into this notion of the communion of saints, that you can sit in this beautiful garden surrounded by the saints who have gone before you and may be able to in some way join you in prayer.”

St. Christopher’s vestry or lay board has not made a final decision on what each niche would cost. “Each niche has the capacity to hold two urns,” Biddy explained, “so you and a partner could purchase one together. I think we are also going to offer a more affordable option of going into a niche with the understanding that one day you may get a roommate.

“We had a member of the vestry research how much columbarium niches tend to cost,” he added, “and the range is remarkable. There are columbariums where the cost is considerably more than having a cemetery plot. That, of course, is not our idea.”

Jordahl noted the church leadership recognized that members were in different places regarding a columbarium and therefore conducted an educational forum and communicated through Sunday bulletins and social media to ensure the congregation was fully informed.

The generation choosing cremation in big numbers is the Baby Boomers, Biddy observed, but Dunlavey has mixed feelings. 

“Before this, I suppose many of us older members didn’t consider much about our own burials,” he said. “But as we get older and weaker, several members have stated they couldn’t imagine being buried anywhere else. Growing up Roman Catholic, our tradition didn’t really allow for cremation. Reality seems to have changed their mind. Cremation still feels a little strange to me, but I think a columbarium is still better than throwing the ashes away like some people do. Maybe because it’s a relatively permanent marker of our lives and passing.”

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Tom Holmes

Tom's been writing about religion – broadly defined – for years in the Journal. Tom's experience as a retired minister and his curiosity about matters of faith will make for an always insightful exploration...

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