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2011-11-01 issue:

Churches choose columbariums over cemeteries

Mennonites save space and resources through cremation

by Anna Groff

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In the ’80s and early ’90s, cremation was somewhat of a dirty word for many Mennonites.

Despite increasing funeral costs, which now run well over $6,000, most individuals felt attached to a traditional burial in a cemetery, says Gene Kimel of Trinity Mennonite Church in Phoenix.

Some individuals preferred burial in their hometown—far away from Arizona—driving up the funeral cost even more.

Photo: Maribeth Troyer stands with the columbarium at Trinity Mennonite Church in Phoenix. She is the care minister.

However, Peter Wiebe, Trinity’s pastor from 1984 to 1996, offered a challenge to his congregation and suggested they purchase a columbarium.

A columbarium is a repository of human cremated remains, often a wall—indoor or outdoor—with niches with nameplates for urns. 

Kimel, caretaker of the columbarium, remembers that Wiebe asked the congregation, “How can we make our funerals in keeping with our faith tradition of simplicity and good stewardship?”

Several years later, in 1996, a committee researched the option of a columbarium. Eighty-nine percent of Trinity members voted for it, and it was completed in 1997.

 At least seven other Mennonite churches have columbariums. (See sidebar below on the right for the list of churches).

“During that time frame, the stigma of being cremated disappeared,” says Kimel, a chiropractor who lives in Phoenix. Also, the average cost of a cremation, around $1,000, is a fraction of a funeral cost.

Photo: Matt, Michelle, Haley and Brynn Miller stand at the indoor columbarium in First Mennonite Church, Iowa City, Iowa. Photo by Dave Sickles.

Trinity was the first church in Glendale, Ariz., to adopt a columbarium. It is located behind one of Trinity’s church buildings, with benches and bushes around it, and includes 126 niches. Twenty-three niches are occupied, and 56 are reserved. 

“It’s the equivalent of a church cemetery in a big city,” he says.

Kimel orders the nameplates for the niches and inurns (to place ashes in an urn) the cremains (ashes from cremation) from the funeral home, which arrive in a plastic bag, before placing the urn in the columbarium—unless a family member prefers to do this.

This flexibility is another advantage offered by cremation. 

Bethel College Mennonite Church (BCMC) in North Newton, Kan., which dedicated its columbarium in 2005, allows members to tailor the cremation process to their wishes.

Sometimes the funeral home directors will pick up the urn—a simple aluminum cylinder—and return it with the ashes in it before the inurnment ceremony. At other times this happens during the ceremony.

Sometimes a family will choose to keep some ashes out of the urn and scatter them at a favorite place, such as a family farm. Finally, some may still opt to embalm the body for a viewing before cremation.

BCMC sold reservations in its columbarium to fund the installation. They sold 29 niches within the first six months of the fund raising. Thirty-one are filled. Members pay $500, and nonmembers pay $750.

Carol Buller saved both her parents’ cremains for the completion of the columbarium. She knew it was a wish of her father not to take up space and use more resources than necessary for end-of-life matters. 

Buller, who parents were Willard and Selma Unruh, served as chair of the installation committee.

Deciding the location of the columbarium was one aspect of the installation process. The congregation decided to have it at the front of the church—despite some concerns it detracted from welcoming churchgoers and possible vandalism.

Pastor Heidi Regier Kreider says the location is a blessing, as the columbarium offers a consistent reminder of the people who have died.

“We’ll have children at Vacation Bible School running around the columbarium,” she says. “It’s a part of our life together.”

Like Trinity and Bethel College churches, First Mennonite Church in Iowa City, Iowa, wanted to offer a place for remains, but its property offers limited space. After a similar process to the other churches, First Mennonite installed a columbarium in May.

An increasing number of First Mennonite congregants chose cremation for ecological and stewardship reasons, says pastor Mag Richer Smith.

Although the columbarium is a new addition, members are already utilizing it. Two individuals kept their spouse’s ashes for months until the columbarium was ready. 

Several members purchased other niches for future use. 

Each niche has two urns. The cost of $600 includes the niche, urn and engraving.

The congregation originally hoped for an outdoor columbarium, but the city code did not allow for that unless it was a fully enclosed courtyard as part of their building.

Instead, they included an indoor columbarium in the their fellowship space renovations. The wall is in the entry of their fellowship fall.

“It has turned out to be a lovely and sacred way to begin our community building in the new fellowship hall,” Richer Smith says. “When we fellowship with the saints on earth, we pass this wall and become mindful that we are also celebrating with the saints in heaven.”

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Additional Notes

Mennonite churches with columbariums

-Trinity Mennonite Church, Phoenix

-First Mennonite of Iowa City, Iowa

-Bethel College Mennonite Church, North Newton, Kan.

-First Mennonite Church of Richmond, Va.

-First Mennonite of Denver

-First Mennonite Church, Hutchinson, Kan.

-Hope Mennonite Church, Wichita, Kan.