August 15, 2012

In columbaria, ashes of the faithful stay with the church

A growing list of religious centers in North Texas are installing columbaria to provide a perpetual place of rest for the cremated remains of members.

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At White's Chapel United Methodist Church, congregants like Gerald and Connie Montague will soon have a way to remain part of their beloved house of worship even in death.

This fall, the Southlake church is set to begin construction of a memorial garden and columbarium, joining a growing list of religious centers in North Texas and beyond in providing a perpetual place of rest for the cremated remains of members.

For some of the faithful, it's a comfort to know that their earthly remains will sit in a place of peace and beauty, even if it's not quite heaven.

"We have a great affinity for the church," Connie Montague said during a zoning hearing in March, "and we'd like to be able to be there for as long as the church is."

First United Methodist Church in Fort Worth and Lovers Lane United Methodist Church in Dallas have completed similar structures in recent years.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth has developed a policy for establishing columbaria, opening the door for parishes like Good Shepherd in Colleyville, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Keller and Immaculate Conception in Denton to move forward.

All Saints' and St. Christopher's Episcopal churches and St. Stephen Presbyterian Church in Fort Worth built columbaria in the past.

The trend is part of a 15-year increase nationwide in those who choose cremation, to 40.6 percent in 2010 from 21.1 percent in 1995, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.

In Dallas-Fort Worth, the rise has been sharper, from about 5 to 40 percent in that time, said Cindy Thompson, president of Thompson's Harveson & Cole Funeral Home in Fort Worth. And the end may not be in sight.

"I'm 62 years old, and in my lifetime I wouldn't be surprised if it got to 75 percent," she said.

'In perpetuity'

Thompson, who helped craft the Fort Worth Diocese's guidelines, said churches are right to explore the columbarium option.

But the appeal of building a columbarium -- a wall-like structure containing niches that are sealed after cremains are placed inside -- must be carefully weighed against a church's long-term vision, Thompson said.

"It's far more serious than any other bricks-and-mortar decision a church will have," she said. What you are creating is in perpetuity. A church needs to know what it's going to look like in 50 and even 100 years."

In 2009, the Legislature changed the law to allow columbaria anywhere on a church campus. Previously, a columbarium had to be attached to the main building. A Houston church requested the change in 2005 and was granted an exception by the Legislature.

At White's Chapel, the columbarium will encircle a memorial garden near a prayer chapel on the west lawn of the sanctuary.

The project, part of a 59,000-square-foot church expansion, will include a fountain and benches.

First United Methodist Church of Fort Worth's $70,000 columbarium was consecrated in May 2010. A 61/2-by-61/2-inch two-person niche costs $1,500; 82 of the 288 niches have been sold, although many are not yet in use, said Larry Ammerman, the church's business administrator.

Some churches may use niche sales as a revenue stream to fund other programs or missions, but that is not the case at the Fort Worth church, Ammerman said.

"The funds are used to reimburse construction costs," he said. "Beyond that, they will be used to fund the care of the columbarium in perpetuity."

A practical side

Ben Foley of Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Homecoming said his 28-year-old firm has built columbaria in 1,200 churches of various denominations, including First United Methodist.

Three main factors seem to be driving the trend toward columbaria, he said: Churches are embracing the traditional concept of churchyard burial, cremation and niche cost significantly less than casket and grave site, and the option is much more environmentally friendly.

"A columbarium with 200 niches -- 100 on one side and 100 on the other -- which can hold 400 urns can easily fit on the space of one cemetery plot," Foley said. "And you cut out the emissions from mowing the grass every week, the water needed for the grass, and on and on."

For consumers, the practical consideration of cost often plays a role. In North Texas, a burial plot alone can run from $900 at a rural cemetery to $10,000 in an older, well-shaded and beautifully featured section of a major cemetery, area funeral directors say.

The casket, embalming and funeral add $5,500 or more.

Cemeteries like Laurel Land in Fort Worth offer columbaria, along with family mausoleums, glass-enclosed niches, cremation gardens and other options. Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery recently completed a 53-acre expansion that included the addition of 4,000 columbarium niches.

Changing demographics and the easing of Christian objections have helped drive the increase in the acceptance of cremation in recent decades.

Daryle Perez, owner of Mansfield Funeral Home, said about half the funerals he directs involve cremation. A key reason, he said, is a career lifestyle that often takes people far from their childhood home.

"People don't have roots anymore," he said. "Most people move here from other places, so they have more flexibility with regard to cremation. It doesn't make sense to be buried in Mansfield if you're from Chicago."

Although Thompson embraces the rising popularity of cremation, she points out that many people still opt for the familiar casket, hearse and grave.

In fact, she is one.

"Fire is a symbol of purification, and some see cremation as final sanctification of the body. It can be a wonderful choice, but I've decided that it's not for me," she said. "I still find beauty in the traditional ritual."

This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Patrick M. Walker, 817-983-8080

Twitter: @patrickmwalker1

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