Families and friends of a deceased loved one whose remains have been cremated will sometimes assume that they have no need for a cemetery. Cremation ashes are, by some family traditions, stored in cremation urns and either kept in a special place in a family home or scattered across some spot that was important in the deceased’s life (or a combination of the two rituals). Neither of these options for cremation remains require a cemetery, so it is understandable that cremation advocates might promote their service as a money saving option, helping grieving families avoid the expensive products and services that cemeteries typically provide. But – especially in recent years as cremation has grown quickly and steadily as a force in the death care industry – cemeteries have found many ways to serve families of those who have been cremated. And these services are proving to be, perhaps surprisingly, popular. Here is a quick summary of the cemetery options that families in just about any part of the United States will have after their loved one’s remains have been cremated.
Many people may be surprised to learn that cremation ashes (or ‘cremains’) are routinely buried in traditional burial plots. In such cases, cemetery policies usually require that the remains first be placed in a cremation urn, and, often times the urn is then required to be placed in a burial vault, so this is not the most economical of cemetery options for cremation remains. But nevertheless, it is common. It can result in a monetary savings over the cost of a non-cremation burial because cemeteries usually charge less money for the smaller-sized burial plots that a direct cremation burial typically require. (Alas, consumers should beware: some cemeteries have been known to charge the same price – or perhaps only slightly less – for plots that are intended for cremation urns only. Price checking at competing cemeteries is always considered a good idea even though it may be uncomfortable, not to mention inconvenient, for families to do during a time of grief and stress that usually accompany the death of a loved one.) Direct burial of a cremation urn can also help families consolidate grave plots and headstones, thereby sometimes cutting a family’s cemetery expenses considerably over the overall price of direct burial without cremation. In many cases married couples purchase a companion cremation urn designed to hold the cremation remains of both the husband and wife, and, after both people have passed away, instructions are left for other family members to bury the two together in the same urn in a single grave that is marked with a single headstone. Though cemetery policies may sometimes require that these ashes be buried in a single full-sized grave plot, families can usually save a significant amount of money by only buying one plot and one headstone for the two people who will be able to live symbolically together, side-by-side, for the ages in their precious urn.
Another popular cemetery option for cremation remains is called a “scattering garden.” Many of the larger cemeteries in the United States today offer this option in a part of their property that has been carefully landscaped to make for a comforting experience for visitors. Though the overall look of scattering gardens vary significantly from cemetery to cemetery, they typically offer the same basic options for families who’s loved one have been cremated. They almost always include a special stage and seating area where family and friends can gather to conduct a memorial ceremony – usually done in addition to a larger, more formal ceremony in a church or chapel or some other similar public spot – just before family members scatter the ashes to the winds blowing through the cemetery.
Though the ashes scattered in a scattering garden cannot be guaranteed, of course, to stay in the confines of the garden for the ages each garden does typically offer families a chance to memorialize their loved one directly in the garden with, perhaps, a plaque that is secured to a special memorial wall or, in some cases, a special brick on which the deceased’s name is engraved before it is added to a memorial walkway that meanders through the garden’s landscaping. Also, most scattering gardens provide families with an option to memorialize their loved ones in an even more significant way by installing small monuments, headstones, or even park benches in the family member’s memory and honor in the garden itself. And, many times families choose to install such memorials near, say, a family plot purchased for other family members buried (or planned to be buried) in another part of the cemetery itself.
Niche in a Columbarium
Another option that many cemeteries provide for families whose loved ones have been cremated is a columbarium. These, often very elaborate and elegant, structures house the cremation remains of up to thousands of people, usually in a bookshelf-like format with a guide posted near the building’s main entrance so that visitors can easily find their way to their family member’s niche.
Niches are a relatively recent arrival on the property of many large cemeteries. The buildings have come about in significant fashion since the turn of the 21st Century as the large corporations that now run the majority of the largest cemeteries in the United States began looking for a way to retain their market share in the death care industry. With the ever-growing popularity of cremation as an alternative to direct burial, the companies needed a way to provide services to families of those who have been cremated, and building Columbaria has proven to be a popular choice. In many cemeteries, columbaria niches now host thousands of cremation urns and there is room in these same buildings for thousands more. Further, most of the cemeteries that play host to columbaria also have sufficient real estate (not to mention financial resources) to build even more niches when the number available in their current inventory begin to dwindle.
Niches are typically available in a wide variety of sizes and styles. Some offer glass-plated, and even lit, views of the cremation urn inside, and others do not provide a view of the urn but, rather, are outfitted with a memorial plaque on the outside of the wall that substitutes for a traditional grave marker. Prices for a niche are typically in line with what a family would pay for a burial plot, and they vary throughout a columbarium building according to their size, amenities they offer and the convenience by which family members will be able to find them. In some cases, cemeteries justify charging more for niches than they do for their traditional graves because family members who come to visit the niches are offered more services – such as air conditioning and other protection from the elements, comfortable seating, restrooms and, in some cases, even access to coffee and other refreshments – than they would receive at traditional grave sites elsewhere in the cemetery.
Another option that many cemeteries offer to families of those who have been cremated are mausoleums. To be fair to consumers, it is important to note that there is typically very little difference, other than the name, between niches that are house in columbaria and crypts that are housed in mausoleums. At least that’s the case today. In previous years, mausoleums were buildings in which entire bodies were stored in sealed compartments and, while those buildings do still exist today, the vast majority of mausoleums are now open only to cremation ashes. (This is not to say that some mausoleums do not house both bodies and ashes. Rather, these buildings today often require that all new customers use their compartments to store only cremation remains, not full bodies.) In today’s death care industry, if there is a physical difference between columbaria and mausoleums, it is that mausoleums are generally larger and even more ornate than a columbarium. This is a tribute to the days, of course, when mausoleum crypts were intended to hold entire bodies as opposed to just cremation remains. To make matters even more confusing in this discussion, many cemeteries today have decided that mausoleum is a more marketable word than columbarium. Accordingly, these companies now sell mausoleum “crypts” that are, by our definition, columbarium niches (that is, they are spaces intended solely for the storage of cremation remains).
And, finally, to add on last bit of confusion to this topic we end by noting that many churches – particularly Catholic churches – still today play host to traditional mausoleums on their properties; that is, these buildings are still intended to hold the remains of entire bodies. While the Catholic church began allowing its adherents to practice cremation in the late 20th century, the tradition is still done with some reluctance among many church members, so it seems unlikely that mausoleums on church property will soon begin transitioning into homes exclusively for cremation ashes as has happened in the world of commercial cemeteries.