The traditional church cemetery is an image already fading into American history, but some Tupelo churches are envisioning a new way of allowing their members to rest on hallowed ground.
Four churches in the city are either committed to or are seriously considering installing a columbarium, a stone structure that houses cremated remains.
Members say it took a while to catch on, but they believe the concept is one whose time has come.
Farthest along in the planning process is First Presbyterian Church, where, pending a vote of the session, construction could start within a couple of months.
The columbarium will be situated on the eastern edge of the property. Architect Bob Mercier has designed a series of free-standing, open-air structures that will match the gothic architecture of the church. Once completed, they’ll form a walk-in circle.
The columbarium will contain slots, called niches, into which urns will be placed. Engraved, granite plaques will serve as the doors to the niches, much like headstones.
Spreading to the north and west of the columbarium will be a meditation garden.
“The idea is to marry this structure to its surroundings,” said Mercier, who is also working with First Presbyterian’s neighbors across Jefferson street, First United Methodist Church.
There, Mercier has planned a series of columbarium structures forming a rectangle. They’ll be made of red brick and designed to match the church’s traditional architecture. The columbarium will stand in a courtyard, nestled between the Lou Bland Memorial Chapel and the church’s music wing.
“We believe this is going to be a very attractive and very practical addition to our church grounds,” said Charlotte Westbrook, who heads First Methodist’s planning committee. The start of construction will depend on how well pre-sales of the niches go.
Practicality was one of the main selling points Ben Foley emphasized when he visited Tupelo in the spring. Foley is director of operations for Homecoming Inc., an Arizona-based company that builds and services the niches. In March he visited First Methodist to offer tips on how committee heads from area churches could pitch a columbarium to their congregations.
Homecoming currently serves 950 churches nationwide, spanning several denominations, and Foley refers to the company’s work as a “ministry.”
“In a sense, death belongs to the church,” said Foley, whose father was a minister. “A columbarium is a way in which the church, even within the confines of the city, can provide a final homecoming to its members.”
Several factors have converged recently to cause churches, like those in Tupelo, to take a closer look at building a columbarium.
High among those factors is the green movement. Whereas traditional, earthen burial involves embalming a body, then burying it in a casket and vault, a columbarium offers a way to keep a deceased loved one’s remains present without taking up much room.
The recession has also made columbaria more attractive.
The average cost of a traditional burial is $10,000. Cremation, on the other hand, typically costs about $1,300, and most churches set the cost of Homecoming’s niches, which accommodate two urns, between $1,400 and $2,000.
“These are very real numbers for people today,” said Foley. Recent trends suggest that those financial realities are taking precedence over more abstract considerations, even in areas steeped in tradition like Mississippi.
Nationwide the number of cremations has risen steadily over the past 20 years, and in 2008 the practice accounted for 37 percent of all memorials. Although the Roman Catholic Church and most mainline Protestant churches now accept cremation, some Christians still have scruples.
A number of recent studies, including one by Scripps Howard News Service, have shown that states with higher rates of church attendance have lower rates of cremation.
Sixty-three percent of Mississippians, according to a 2008 Gallup poll, attend church weekly, more than any other state. It’s no surprise, then, according to John Ross, executive director of the Cremation Association of North America, that ours was the last state to break the 10 percent threshold for cremations.
At 11.87 percent, Mississippi still cremates less than any state in the U.S., but over the past two years it has experienced the largest percentage increase.
Ross believes Mississippi trends are indicative of changing attitudes nationwide about cremation, and many Tupeloans agree.
“There’s nothing unchristian about cremation,” said the Rev. Tom Groome, pastor of First Presbyterian Church. “We have a general tendency to hide death in Western society, to push it aside.” Perhaps, Groome added, a columbarium on the church grounds will help symbolize the continuity between life, death and resurrection.
Funeral director Steve Holland was part of the initial conversations when the downtown churches began considering columbaria. Last year Holland cremated his deceased brother, and he was one of the first to reserve a niche at First Methodist.
“I see this as a return to the way many Christians used to handle burial, such as the Church of England, and the Catholic Church, both of which have a long history of burying members on the church grounds,” said Holland.
The folks at St. Luke United Methodist in Tupelo figured they’d go and see some columbaria firsthand before they made up their minds.
One of the congregations they visited was Columbus First United Methodist Church.
Horticulturist Ralph Null, one of the main planners for the columbarium and its adjoining meditation garden, said the church pre-sold about 15 percent of its niches before it started construction. Most Tupelo churches aren’t that far along, but they’re confident the idea will catch on. According to Westbrook, the columbarium at First Methodist Tupelo won’t cost the church any money. It will essentially be paid for by those who purchase niches.
At First Methodist those niches will be reserved for church members and their immediate families, and at First Presbyterian the decision of whose remains may be placed in repose in a niche will be left to the discretion of the session.
Sandra Caldwell of St. Luke has been impressed by what she’s seen on the investigative committee’s field trips, which have also included visits to Germantown United Methodist Church and the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection in Starkville.
The columbaria in those places “have been inspirational and lovely and completely part of their surroundings,” said Caldwell, adding that St. Luke still hasn’t reached a decision as to whether or not to proceed.
All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Tupelo has looked carefully at some of the legal issues surrounding a columbarium. “For example, a person who purchases a niche won’t own a piece of church property,” said Wayne Averett, who has headed the church’s exploratory committee. The church hasn’t yet worked out the exact legal language describing to what extent a person would possess the niche.
As part of its deliberation All Saints’ surveyed some 15 other Episcopal churches throughout the state that have a columbarium.
The church’s tentative plan includes a columbarium both inside the chapel, or the old church which stands beside the newer worship space, as well as on the eastern part of the property facing Madison Street. Like members of other Tupelo churches, Averett is eager.
“Building a columbarium at All Saints’ has been in the works for years,” said Averett. “We are closer than ever to turning those plans into a reality.”
Contact Galen Holley at (662) 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal