Cubic compartments called columbarium have been changing the face of some cemeteries in Newfoundland and Labrador.
A columbarium is a vertical, above-ground granite or marble structure normally found in cemeteries.
Each structure contains a number of columbaria, often referred to as niches, that hold urns containing cremated remains.
However, the idea is not a new one. In fact, the preservation practice dates back to Roman times.
Anne Walsh, director of Adult Faith Formation for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese in St. John’s, said use of a columbarium has been used for centuries.
“Colum [or columba] is the Latin word for a dove, and a dove is the traditional symbol of peace, and that’s what we want for our beloved dead,” Walsh told CBC.
“So, a columbarium in the Roman tradition, and again all through history, was a place where the doves were housed. It’s quite a beautiful image really.”
Breathing new life into an old cemetery
There is now at least one columbarium in most of the older cemeteries in St. John’s.
The first was installed in 2000 at the Anglican Cemetery on Forest Road, which dates back to 1849.
‘Once those niches are locked, there is no other maintenance required by our families, our remaining families — and that’s the way we wanted it to be. Very simple and no trouble for our family.’– Dorothy Noel
Arthur King, chairman of the cemetery committee, said 14 years ago, there was little or no room left for burials. He estimates there are close to 21,000 people buried there.
A space-saving columbarium could breathe new life into an old, crowded cemetery, he said.
The cemetery is about to install its seventh structure.
?King said people are choosing to spend less on their ultimate farewell. Cremation and columbarium committal is less expensive than traditional in-ground burials — sometimes as little as half the cost.?
“We have often heard it said, that by doing this, we can pass on $10,000 to our grandchildren. And the neat thing about this too though, the cemetery will maintain these over a period of time,” said King.
“It’s perpetual care, that’s also factored into the price. So all the care and the maintenance … we have plants, decorative plants all around here … we have chairs where people can sit down and meditate, and be quiet,” he said.
“That’s one of the reasons why I think the sale of these is so high — people just like the setting, and the fact that somebody else then will look after it, and for an indefinite period of time.”
Fewer words, in a smaller space
When Dorothy Noel and her husband Fred first heard of the above-ground cremation structure in 1999, they decided to reserve their spots at the Anglican Cemetery.
“Once those niches are locked, there is no other maintenance required by our families, our remaining families — and that’s the way we wanted it to be. Very simple and no trouble for our family,” said Noel.
“Compared to the ground, I watched my father and my mother being buried … and it stays with you. It’s cold and it’s bleak, although we know that it’s only the body, the soul isn’t there, but I think when you’re making this decision you base it on experience.”
Noel said she understands that some people might view a columbaria as a loss of individual expression, but said she’s not worried about not having a headstone.
“They’re lovely to visit, and I know a lot of our visitors come on the island, a lot of them visit the graveyards … and they do have stories to tell. I’d like to tell our stories before we die, and I feel that the columbarium is the right place for us. I feel we’ll be very happy there,” Noel said.
?This past summer, Holy Sepulchre Roman Catholic Cemetery erected its first columbarium.
Gordon Holden, operations supervisor at the cemetery, said when he first heard the word two years ago, he was at a loss.
“I barely knew how to spell the word, much less knew what they were,” he said.
“Up to around 10 years ago, cremation wasn’t an option that was chosen by very many Roman Catholics, but in the last 10, 12 or 15 years, it has risen from about 10 per cent to around 65 or 70 per cent.”
‘So, a columbarium in the Roman tradition, and again all through history, was a place where the doves were housed. It’s quite a beautiful image, really.’ – Anne Walsh, Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. John’s
Holy Sepulchre currently has four grey stone columbarium with multiple mailbox-like storage compartments.
?“So there’s 24 niches in this unit here, there’s 24 niches in that unit over there, there’s 15 in the corner unit and another 15 over here,” said Holden.
“The ones in the middle here, they’re 15-inch cubes, they’re a little larger … so if people choose a larger urn or they want to put in three urns, they should be able to fit them in there. And then these are 12 inches, these are smaller units for people who may only want one urn,” said Holden.