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With cremation on the rise, churches building columbaria to house remains

A parishioner at Madison’s Grace Episcopal Church spoke often about why she wanted her ashes interred in a metal box within a wooden cabinet alongside her husband and two children in the church’s chapel.

“Don’t be buried from the church. Be buried in the church,” the now deceased woman would say, according to Stan Henning, the church’s administrator for what is known as a columbarium.

Many churches in Wisconsin have built such structures over the years, even though state law didn’t clearly define them as distinct from mausoleums, which can only be built in cemeteries. Gov. Scott Walker and the Legislature recently updated the law to make clear that churches are allowed to build columbaria, provided they follow certain rules.

Columbaria can be buildings, free-standing structures or walls within buildings, usually located in churches or cemeteries, that contain several niches to hold urns or other containers with the cremated remains of the deceased.

They can also be as simple as Grace Episcopal’s pair of 4-foot wooden cabinets with a cross carved on the door. Each niche costs $200, Henning said. Two plaques on the wall above the cabinets list the names of 35 parishioners whose ashes lie there.

Unlike mausoleums, which can be built only at cemeteries, columbaria do not hold embalmed remains.

The impetus for the recent change in law came from a handful of communities in southeastern Wisconsin that tried to block churches from building free-standing structures, saying they were mausoleums and not allowed outside of cemeteries. The lead sponsor of the bill, Rep. Rob Brooks, R-Saukville, noted the new law includes a one-year moratorium on new construction of columbaria to allow municipalities to develop ordinances related to them.

“With more individuals choosing cremation over traditional burial, (the law) will ultimately affect every legislative district in our state,” Brooks said in a statement after Gov. Scott Walker signed the law earlier this month.

The new law allows churches and religious organizations to construct columbaria on their properties, though they have to follow certain rules, such as setting aside money from the sale of the niches for a special fund for maintaining the structures.

If the church ever closes, they must arrange for the relocation of the remains.

The Department of Safety and Professional Services has been regulating free-standing buildings that house cremated remains but not smaller columbaria inside churches, according to DSPS spokeswoman Hannah Zillmer.

“It mainly clarified the regulations for someone who does want to build a columbarium,” Zillmer said. “Because we’re seeing this uptick in cremations, it’s something that the public was calling for.”

According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the number of cremations is projected to surpass burials in the United States in 2015 for the first time. Wisconsin has already reached that point.

As of 2013, 51 percent of Wisconsin deaths were followed by cremation, compared to 43 percent by burial (the other methods include donation, entombment and removal from the state). Ten years ago, 34 percent of deaths in the state ended in cremation compared to 58 percent that resulted in burial.

Scott Anderson, executive director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches, said there has been increasing interest in columbaria among certain denominations, such as Episcopalians and Presbyterians.

“For local church members, it’s a matter that this is their spiritual home and they desire for their ashes to remain with their spiritual community,” Anderson said.

The Catholic Church prohibited cremation until the 1960s but still requires ashes to be interred and perpetually cared for. Though some Catholic churches have columbaria, they can be a hindrance for parish churches during an expansion or renovation because of maintenance concerns, said Kim Wadas, associate director for education and health care at the Wisconsin Catholic Conference.

It’s unclear how many columbaria already exist in the state outside of cemeteries. The new law requires churches and religious organizations to report existing columbaria to DSPS.

James Olson, a spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association and owner of Olson Funeral Home and Cremation Service in Sheboygan, said the majority of churches don’t have columbaria — he could think of five or six in Sheboygan, a city with about 80 churches. However, they could become more prevalent, especially as people seek to avoid the costs associated with cemetery burial.

According to the national association, the median cost in 2014 of funerals followed by a burial was $7,205, or about $1,000 more than a funeral followed by cremation. That doesn’t include the cost of a burial vault, plot and excavation fee, which can run an extra $2,500, Olson said.

“People are starting to look for other venues, and one happens to be their own church,” Olson said.

Covenant Presbyterian Church on Madison’s West Side built a columbarium into one of its walls during a major renovation in 2007, the Rev. Charles Berthoud said. Of the 50 niches, about one-quarter are occupied while another quarter are purchased by parishioners who are still alive.

“A lot of people are finding cremation a more desired option when death comes,” Berthoud said. “Some of it might have been economics driving it. We’re probably fairly cheaper than cemeteries and whatnot.”

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