Part of a growing trend among Catholics
By Jill Kruse
Witness Editorial Assistant
AMES — Most people don’t like to think about their own mortality. But death is an unavoidable part of life, and at some point everyone must think about what they wish to happen to their body, or the bodies of those they love, after they die.
In recent years, an increasing number of people, including many Catholics, are choosing to be cremated after death. Some parishes are responding to this emerging trend by building a structure on their church grounds where cremated remains can be inurned. This structure, called a columbarium, contains individual units called niches, where urns can be stored.
Earlier this year, a columbarium was built at St. Joseph Parish in Bellevue. Most recently, one was built at St. Thomas Aquinas Church and Catholic Student Center in Ames.
The new structure at St. Thomas Aquinas was dedicated in a ceremony following the 10:30 a.m. Mass on Sunday, July 31. Nearly 50 parishioners were present for the ceremony; Father Jon Seda officiated. After a brief service in the church sanctuary, those present processed outdoors to a prayer garden on the church grounds where the columbarium was built. Father Seda blessed the structure and Shirley Shaw, a parishioner who was influential in its construction, read a poem. A lunch followed the dedication.
The building of the columbarium at St. Thomas Aquinas was a process that began three years ago after one member of the parish proposed its construction. Since many parishioners had never even heard of a columbarium, the church held a series of informational meetings, intended to explain what a columbarium was and gauge people’s potential interest in building one.
Following the meetings, several parishioners came forth and volunteered to serve on a columbarium committee. “We knew the spirit was working, as each member brought a special gift, and we quickly became a team,” Shaw remembered.
One obstacle the committee had to overcome was the question of where to construct the columbarium. Committee members hoped for a location in the church itself, but after investigation, it was determined such a heavy structure could not be supported on any of the floors of the building above ground level. The committee decided to move outdoors as they continued their search for a good location. They found one in the garden. “The perfect spot was there,” Shaw said, “waiting to be discovered.”
The other main hurdle the committee faced was financial. “It was clear from the very beginning that the project had to be self-sustaining,” Shaw said. Committee members determined they needed to pre-sell 20 niches in the columbarium before they could consider building. By the beginning of 2016, enough niches had been sold and enough funds were available to move forward with the columbarium’s construction.
To date, 54 niches in the columbarium have been purchased by parishioners. The structure contains 120 niches total, and each niche can hold up to two urns. There is room for expansion in the garden if additional niches need to be added.
On the front of each niche is an 8-inch by 8-inch granite plaque upon which the names, birth dates and death dates of the deceased can be engraved.
“We are happy with how it turned out and how many people are interested in it,” Father Seda said of the new columbarium.
He said he believes the location of the new structure and its closeness to the church is important.
“When I was in seminary, I spent time walking around the monastic cemetery which was close by. It gave me a perspective on the bigger picture of life, and how short life is,” he reflected.
“I like parishes that have cemeteries close by because it gives us some of that same perspective as we gather to worship God each Sunday. My prayer is that our columbarium may do the same for us.”
Church teaching on cremation
For much of church history, cremation of the dead was prohibited. Early Christians continued the Jewish practice of bodily burial. Jesus himself had been buried in a tomb, before rising on Easter Sunday, and bodily burial was seen as a way of countering the practice of cremation, which was popular with the pagans of ancient Rome.
As Christianity spread, the practice of cremation all but ceased in the Western world. When cremation was chosen, it was often done as a way of publicly rejecting the Christian belief of the resurrection of the body. For this reason, the church banned the practice and those who chose cremation could not receive a Catholic funeral.
In 1963, the church lifted the ban on cremation, on the condition that the person seeking cremation was not doing so as a way of denying the belief in the resurrection of the body. While cremation is now permitted, full-body burial remains the church’s preference.
Cremation has become increasingly popular in recent years for practical reasons such as cost, since it is significantly less expensive than undergoing a traditional burial. For Catholics who do choose cremation, a funeral Mass can be celebrated at a church, just as it would be if they had chosen a full-body burial. Once the funeral is over, cremated remains should not be scattered or kept in the home, but should instead be buried in a grave or a columbarium.
On July 31, Father Jon M. Seda, pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish, leads a blessing ceremony of the columbarium recently built on the church grounds. The parish is on the forefront of an emerging trend in Catholic burial practices. (Contributed photo)