Henderson's downtown churches use cemetery alternative

Mar. 16, 2013 @ 11:45 AM

Many churches have their own cemeteries, where members can be buried in ground that has special meaning for them and their families.

But for urban churches, where land is at a premium, providing a cemetery may not be feasible.

Three downtown Henderson churches have found an alternative. They have columbariums, where urns holding the ashes of deceased members and their families can be placed in individual niches.

The columbarium wall in the memorial garden of Church of the Holy Innocents was dedicated on Sept. 28, 1988. Designed by church member Marsha Nelson, the columbarium features brickwork that coordinates with the classic architecture of the church.

A bronze plaque with a name and dates marks each niche containing ashes of the deceased. Each unused niche in the curved brick columbarium is marked by three vertical bricks, which stand in contrast to the horizontal motif throughout the wall.

Like other columbariums, this one is designed so a brick mason can remove the outer bricks in order for ashes in an urn to be placed inside before the niche is resealed.

Some people preferred to have ashes scattered throughout the garden rather than placed in an urn. Above their names is a plaque bearing the inscription: “Alleluia, Christ is risen. In memory of those whose ashes rest elsewhere in this memorial garden.”

The Rev. Donald Lowery, rector of Church of the Holy Innocents, explained why people choose cremation rather than traditional burial.

“There are several issues,” he said. “One is cost. It’s less expensive. And some people are concerned about the amount of land they take up. It’s an environmental issue.”

Churches have built columbariums to accommodate people who select cremation and would like to be interred on church property.

“City churches don’t have enough land to have a cemetery,” Lowery said. “If you want to be buried in a city church, a columbarium is the only way to go.”

At First Baptist Church, the columbarium is constructed of stonework to match the granite of the church building.

“We went to the same quarry in Mount Airy to get the granite,” said Nettie White, a church member who helped guide development of the columbarium.

A stone walk leads through the memorial garden. The columbarium walls on each side contain niches for urns. Each occupied niche is identified by a name and dates carved into the stone.

Some niches have only a family name, indicating that they have been purchased by a church member to reserve it for future use.

Phil Young was minister of music at First Baptist Church for 45 years. His wife, Mary Lou, was associate minister of music and organist until her death in 1998.

“It was her choice,” Young said, explaining why her ashes are in the columbarium wall. “It’s rather comforting to me to know that Mary Lou is there a few feet from where she worked all those years. The children’s choir room is just on the other side of the wall.”

A memorial wall in the garden is inscribed with numerous names. Young said these are names of people buried elsewhere but whose families wanted them honored in the memorial garden. Standing beside the memorial wall, a fountain carries the motto, “In Loving Memory.”

Richard and Marietta Noel have reserved a niche for themselves in the columbarium. In addition, the names of Richard’s parents are on the memorial wall.

“They’re buried in Elmwood Cemetery,” he said, but honoring them on the memorial wall seemed appropriate for long-time members of the church.

Some family names show up on more than one columbarium. A niche in the columbarium at Church of the Holy Innocents is engraved with the name of Eric Flannagan, Jr. At the Baptist church, a niche is reserved for his brother Steve and wife Helen.

“That’s because I’m Baptist,” Helen said.

The columbarium at First Presbyterian Church is relatively new. It stands at the north side of the garden adjoining the church’s fellowship hall. Older residents of Henderson will remember the lot as the site of Nanny Crowder’s home.

Rick Brand, now retired, was pastor of the church at the time the columbarium was constructed. Members have an option of buying a niche in the columbarium wall or having ashes of the deceased sprinkled in the garden area and the name added to a larger plaque, he said.

The word columbarium is derived from “columba,” the Latin term for dove, a traditional Christian symbol of love and peace. Placing the ashes of the deceased within the columbarium, with that ancient meaning, can be the family’s way of wishing those blessings for their loved one.

Contact the writer at dirvine@hendersondispatch.com.