Thursday, August 11, 2004

The Preacher’s Corner
By Rev. Dr. Milton Winter

“O Lord, I have loved the habitation of thy house...” Psalms 26:8

Since our church has a columbarium — a burial places for cremated ashes — I receive questions from time to time and have been asked to put some information in this column. More and more churches are adding columbaria (the plural form of the word) either within or outside their buildings, and there are several now in Memphis and in several other towns in north Mississippi.

Burial in the church or the nearby churchyard is an ancient, honorable custom. On May 3, 1998, our church’s governing boards approved a proposal to place a columbarium in the garden of our church, with a gift by Mrs. Robert S. Hill as a memorial to her late husband. A plan for the columbarium was drawn by Joey Miller, grandson of Mr. Hill, which was executed with the help of Harold Murphy. David Fant, a deacon of our church, oversaw the project.

The columbarium was modeled after the large gothic buttresses which support the walls of our church. It was constructed of old brick that matches the brick of our historic 1860 church. It has twelve compartments, with room for twenty-four urns.

The word “columbarium” derives from the Latin word columba, “dove,” a symbol of God’s spirit and peace. A columbarium is a receptacle or structure reserved for the interment of cremated remains of deceased persons, in dignified surroundings on consecrated grounds. The area around the columbarium is a place for meditation and private prayer. It is somewhat like a mausoleum, in which the caskets of those who have died are interred above ground.

At least four Mid-South congregations have recently built columbaria. A variety of arrangements can be observed. Calvary Church, Memphis, has added a columbarium in their lovely courtyard, with vaults recessed into the side of the church. St. John’s Church, Memphis, has built a lovely brick wall in “Williamsburg style” encircling the church yard, with niches for cremains inside the wall facing the church. Columbaria at the Church of the Epiphany in Tunica and at St. Peter’s, Oxford, are in cabinet structures inside the churches, along the walls of the sanctuary near the altar. The Presbyterian Church at Sumner has built a lovely memorial garden, where ashes can be buried or scattered. In each case, plates of wood, metal, or stone are engraved with the usual information that would be placed on a cemetery marker. 

People also ask about the historical theological background of cremation. Fire has long been recognized as a cleansing and sanctifying agent. It played this role in the worship of the Hebrews, and is still prescribed for dignified, rev-erent disposition of items which are no longer usable, such as flags, Bibles, or altar linens. Cremation (the term derives from the Latin word for fire) has been used since ancient times as a reverent means for disposing of our dead. It is not an end in itself, but is a process, which prepares the human remains for interment in a beautiful and long-lasting memorial.

As early as 1200 B.C. Greeks cremated their dead and buried their ashes in urns. While the earliest Christians buried their dead, they simply followed the prevailing Hebrew custom, which was at the time the most convenient and common method for disposing of human remains in the Mediterranean culture where they resided. Christ, of course, was buried in a tomb belonging to Joseph of Arimathea, but many of the ancient martyrs met their deaths by fire, and were accorded sainthood for their witness. So, believers have been laid to rest in a variety of ways from the earliest of times, as witnessed by the old phrase in the burial service: “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

Christians recognize that our earthly bodies are of no further use after death and, so far as the Christian faith is concerned, the kind of burial that is carried out is a matter of individual preference, as long as it is performed with dig-nity and reverence toward the God who gave us our earthly bodies, and unto whom our spirits return. Methods, such as interment in a columbarium, scattering of ashes, or burial at sea arose because of various contingencies, not the least of which has been a growing recognition of the decreased amount of land avail-able for cemeteries due to the earth’s rapidly increasing population. Many have also noted the difficulty of maintaining old, often isolated cemeteries. Cremation has found increasing favor in west-ern countries since 1869 when the International Medical Congress at Edinburgh, Scotland urged nations of the world to adopt cremation.

Most burials in Great Britain and Europe now include cremation, and have done so for several generations. This is rapidly be-com-ing the case in cities and larger communities of the U.S. as well. Protestants have never forbidden cremation; Roman Catholics approved it in 1963. It has been the personal choice of various persons in Marshall County through the years.

Some may wonder if cremation is consistent with the Christian belief in the resurrection of the dead, but unlike the ancient Egyptians, I do not believe that our eternal hope is in any way necessitated by the preservation of our earthly remains. St. Paul, who describes resurrection with the metaphor of a seed’s germination, assures us that while the body is “sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:44). Eternity and the body that we are given at the day of resurrection for our further life in God’s presence are divine gifts and fitted for that new dimension of existence. So, whether to cremate or bury the body is a matter of convenience; in either case it passes from our sight. 

Yet we never pass from God’s sight, and we believe that our beloved departed are in the hands of God — in death as in life — whatever disposition is made of their mortal bodies, which in God’s providence they have now outgrown.

Although burial in our church’s columbarium is reserved primarily for members and spouses of our church family, other congregations may be interested in building one. People choose cremation and burial in a columbarium for a variety of reasons, but it can provide a significant savings over the cost of traditional cemetery burials. It also provides a way for those who have loved their church to be close by it for ever, and I like to think of the 26th Psalm, “O Lord, I have loved the habitation of thy house, and the place where thine honor dwelleth.”

I would be happy to provide more details about columbaria and their arrangements to anyone who has questions, or for any other congregation or organization that would like to build one.

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