When Theodore BrauBurger and his wife Theresa attend Sunday morning Mass at St. Stephen Church in Bentonville, they are also able to visit his father’s final resting place.
“I think it’s powerful. I really do,” he said, of his father being interred in a niche at the St. Stephen columbarium. “As a matter of fact, his birthday was the 17th of this month so it’s kind of nice to be able to go out there and give him a blessing, wish him a happy birthday.”
And he knows the value of having a loved one interred close by, as his mother is buried in Denver.
“I wish she was there too. Because very rarely do I get to go see her grave,” he said.
But for him and his wife’s family -- nine of whom have reserved spaces in the parish’s columbarium for their cremains -- it is a legacy of faith.
“I just think that’s kind of the legacy that I like. Especially on All Souls Day, you can go out there and all your ancestors are there,” BrauBurger said. “... I think that would be pretty special especially for our grandchildren to go and say, ‘That’s my dad, my dad’s dad, my mom; just the whole family tree being there is pretty cool.”
Seventeen parishes in the diocese offer a columbarium, a structure that has niches to store cremated remains, for parishioners and immediate family. “Columbarium” is derived from the Italian word columba, meaning “dove.” In ancient Rome, columbaria were typically large homes for doves and pigeons, according to columbariumusa.com. A mausoleum is for full body burial.
According to the National Funeral Directors Association 2019 report, 8.1 percent of cremated remains are placed in a columbarium. The Catholic Church allows cremations, but cremains must be interred or buried, never scattered.
“It’s such a beautiful comforting thing. You don’t have to get in a car, you don’t have to leave the church, it’s right here,” said Laura Humphries, parish life stewardship director who is in charge of the columbarium at Our Lady of the Holy Souls Church in Little Rock. “... We believe ashes to ashes, we’re all going to be reunited with our body whether it’s in ashes or whether it’s buried in a grave in a casket; we’re all going to be resurrected.”
Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Hot Springs Village established its columbaria in 2007 for parishioners and immediate family. There are 320 niches, with 192 people interred so far. Sixty-two are not yet sold. Single niches and nameplates are $2,300 and doubles are $3,300.
Sacred Heart’s four columbaria are placed in a garden with a walking trail, a fountain and a Sacred Heart of Jesus statue.
“I think personally it’s a place where somebody can go particularly when they’ve lost a loved one, and it’s a very serene area,” said Bill Patterson, chairman of the columbarium committee.
Parishioner Gary Wolfer, who works with people buying a niche, said “The great majority are using cremation now and there’s multiple reasons, cost being one, but also just the ability to move ashes if in fact you want to move ashes to a different place.”
Patterson said the parish recently had a woman move her husband’s interred ashes to Illinois.
“Our policy is we don’t buy the niche back, but we will basically advertise it for sale, if they so desire. We just had a situation where someone came in and said, ‘Do you have any niches that have been vacated’ and we passed that along,” he said.
Charlotte Champagne, chairwoman of the columbarium committee for St. Stephen, said because the parish is located in “such a transient community, if somebody does need to move” cremains, having them interred at the parish is an easy option. Each niche is $1,000, with the $250 nameplate included. Two columbaria have 288 niches total, with 80 people interred and 170 sold.
“I think the main one is they can see their loved one every Sunday,” Champagne said of why it’s popular. “It’s very gorgeous landscaping, it's very manicured and it’s a convenience. A lot of times it’s a gravesite and you never go back.”
Most parish columbaria do not allow photos or other decorations, aside from flowers the day of the funeral.
“The day of the funeral, we allow flowers and we leave them up a day or two,” but beyond that, extra decorations, “take away from the beauty of the simplicity,” Humphries said.
Holy Souls garden columbarium was installed in 2000 and was instantly popular with parishioners, despite initial skepticism.
“Our maintenance man, he just didn’t think it would ever sell. Our first one had 96 niches in it. It sold out pretty quickly,” Humphries said. Today, the church has 620 niches with about 125 available, for $1,100, which includes the urn and nameplate.
“This is holy ground, it is where I’ve worshiped for 23 years, and I just feel like it’d be easier on my family,” to be interred there, despite having other family burial plots. And Humphries added, “You’re really not out there, you’re going to be in heaven. This is where your remains are.”
Deacon Larry Lipsmeyer, who handles the accounting for Sacred Heart’s columbariums, said he and his wife have a reserved niche.
“The memorial garden is just beautiful. I’ve been in the Village 27 years. I figure on dying here, so this is my home,” despite family plots in Calvary Cemetery in Little Rock, where he grew up. “Little Rock was my home when my dad bought those, but this is my home now and this is where I need to stay.”
“I entered the diaconate formation about four months after I moved to the Village,” he added. “In that sense it’s where my ministry has been so that has a lot to do with, ‘OK, that’s where my ministry has been. Maybe I can still do some good if I go to heaven for the parish with the Lord up there if I'm in that columbarium.’”
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