What is a Columbarium?
We recently attended the Moody Bible Institution Pastor’s Conference and many of the pastors asked us, “What is a Columbarium”? By the end of the conference, we were able to define what a Columbarium is in less than 60 seconds. The quick definition is a Columbarium is a structure that has niches designated for the inurnment of cremated remains.
The Columbarium can contain any number of niches, be constructed inside a building or outside, and range in height from approximately 4 feet high to 8 feet high. The overall height and material selection is suggested to the committee as the design process moves along. The project can contain as many as 100 or more niches or as few as 20 niches. The standard size of a niche is 12x12x12 and is made out of steel reinforced concrete or other materials and contains a sealer and is usually clad with granite. The niche front is where the family places the name, birth and death dates of the person who in inurned. While this size is the most popular as it allows the placement of two typical cremation urns, there are other sizes available. When the crematory or the funeral home returns the cremated remains to the family in the urn, the urn can be placed in the columbarium at the church following the memorial service. The opening and the closing and the sealing of the niche are quite simple and are usually completed by one of the columbarium volunteers.
Columbaria have been around for thousands of years. They were built by the Romans, Persians, Israelites, Egyptians, Chinese, and other ancient cultures. It is believed the Romans spread the practice to the Western World through their conquests.
Originally, the Columbaria structures served as nesting places for doves. They were first hewed out of underground caves and then erected in towers built above the ground; some columbaria could hold as many as 5000 doves. In Latin Columba means “dove”. During the time of the Republic and through the Empire, Rome kicked out the doves and converted the columbaria to house the remains of their citizens. Romans actually believed they would not pass into the afterlife without a proper burial, thus many Romans belonged to collegia, funeral societies to which they would pay monthly dues to provide burial services for members. As long as they were in good standing members were ensured a place in the columbarium. Some Roman emperors even helped out the poor who couldn't afford to join a society by giving them an allowance.
There are many famous columbaria that stand to this day, and the ancient tradition of building columbaria is clearly alive and well. Due to the increase in cremation's popularity there is a growing need to accommodate the placement of these remains in columbaria, which is why so many churches, graveyards, memorial sites and other community cornerstones are investing in the building of a columbarium.
With the beautiful symbol of the dove behind it, a columbarium truly is a place of hope and peace. It's a place for the community to connect with each other and to reflect. It's also an opportunity to become a part of the traditions and celebrations of life started in countless other communities across the history of humanity.