The Columbarium Project

Some ideas at St. George’s which fail or are delayed do end up having their day. The third floor of McGuire, the music room or McGuire room is an example.  But one idea that has been tried three time ultimately has not won out and that is a proposed columbarium.  The first time was 1982, then 2003-2004 and finally in 2008-2010. However, the idea behind it, to revive burials at St. George’s did occur with the burial of cremains.

In the colonial era, burial was frequently on your own property or where you fell.  As graveyards become more organized a century later, families often made decision for you for burial, typically in a family plot in a local graveyard. Also, burial mean one thing – a coffin.

The term “columbarium” comes from the Latin “columba” (dove) and originally referred to compartmentalized housing for doves and pigeons called a dovecote. They are distinguished from mausoleums which house entire bodies.

Columbaria go back to Roman times. In current times, they can be above or below ground in an existing cemetery or another location. In other cases, columbaria can be free standing structures or are built into church structures.  They have become more popular in the 1970’s with people looking for economical options for burial, less expensive than the traditional graveyard burial.

In the case of St. George’s, the columbarium idea came from the fact that St. George’s graveyard was closed in 1932 when the body of Reuben Thom was moved here.  The Vestry banned all future interments due to lack of space.  Since churches talk of life beyond the grave, another option for burial was needed. Columbarium both save space and more economical.

The first columbarium idea was in June, 1982 and was proposed by Cline Barton from the Administration/Management Commission.

They projected a cost of the unit $7,500, $150 a niche, assuming a 20% response rate.  At 10%, the rate would be $300.  This would be small unit at about 50 niches compared to later designs.  This would be only the construction cost.  They estimated cremation at $600 to$750 and a fee to cover interment. Access would be through a locked door on the north side of the columbarium as an extension of the cemetery walk. Barton projected a $50,000 profit in September 1982 if it sold out. Here was the design:

They cited St. Paul’s columbarium in Washington which had a flagstone terrace surrounded by trees, flowers and shrubs. Underlying the flagstone terrace were 261 niches identified with brass markers and set on a reinforced concrete slab enclosed within masonry walls. Names, dates and location shown on a limestone and brass Memorial Plaque located in church.  Each interment listed in volume of church archives.  The cost did not include an engraved memorial marker or a special container for ashes.  They charted $150 for each niche (1975) for the year.

They proposed an above ground columbarium against the wall of McGuire Hall with a total cost of $18,750 to $22,500.  A below ground facility was considered since a thought was the units could impair “the continuity and architectural balance of St. George’s and its cemetery.” They were also concerned with finding unmarked graves in that area.

Clyde Matthew proposed to the Vestry to authorize the formation of a commission which was done in September and they were to report back in Dec., 1982 after determining the level of interest in the congregation and determine the financial feasibility of such a project.

The summer may have a bad time to consider the project. The Vestry was sidetracked with other issues including Vestry vacancies, commission duties and eventual stewardship campaign focused attention away from the columbarium idea.

No report was submitted to the Vestry so the idea apparently died. In talking with Clyde at the time this article was written (2017) he doesn’t remember the reason whether the costs were unreasonable or there wasn’t enough interest or whether priorities came in place of the columbarium.

In 1985, the Vestry approved the future interment of the ashes of Tom and Mary Faulkner. Tom died in 1996 and was the first buried here since 1932. Mary died in 2008.

When the 1982 effort failed, the columbarium idea became part of the Capital Planning and Historic Preservation Commission in 1990.  It was never included, however in Aim 2000.  

The idea lay dormant until 2002.

As of April, 2002 Pete Myers and John Coker were heading up a committee to develop plans for the Memorial Gardens and Columbarium for the cemetery

In August Coker gave an updated status to the Vestry. A parishioner had given $500.00 in 2001 towards this project and they were ready to talk to a contractor. By October, they wished to contract with a Pinehurst, North Carolina firm, Columbarium Planners which specialized in architecture, design, and building of columbaria.  100 niches were proposed.

In January, 2003 the Vestry authorized $10,000 for architectural plans for landscape and general architecture for a St. George’s Columbarium and Memorial Garden. The loan would come from Building reserve with the idea it would be paid back from Columbarium sales.

Columbarium Planners looked at four sites – two in the graveyard by McGuire Hall and two on George Street. The recommended site was the brick paved area along the south side of the sanctuary on George Street away from the church wall and along the brick wall closest to George Street, practically the whole length of the paved brick area.  A scatter, memorial ash burial ground area was recommended in the area outside of the library where the herb garden currently is or in the cemetery near McGuire Hall.  The latter subject was not addressed in this letter. 

In Oct., 2003, the City Council had approved in principle the columbarium for the George Street side of the church, but had remanded the church to go back to the City Planning Commission to begin to obtain a Special Use Permit.  The design would have to be approved by the Architectural Review Board and if the Planning Commission voted approval, the City Council would vote on the special use permit.

Problems ensued by the spring of 2004. Columbarium Planners had been unable to get a local engineering firm to do a site survey to get a site plan through the Architectural Review Board and the City Planning Commission. They did their own by May, 2004

Apparently, no drawings were available. Opposition also developed for the George Street location. The Nave Renovation Task force also recommended that the Vestry delay any decision on the columbarium’s location because it may be premature in view of the nave renovation. The plan was building units rather than using prefab units which was more expensive. 

In July, 2004, it was decided not to pursue a columbarium until the nave renovation plans were complete. However, they encourage the group to purse a memorial garden in a place not affected by the Nave Renovation Task Force’s plans. In September, they would refer the recommendations to the Nave Renovation architect. The project effectively died in 2004.

The third proposal was in 2007 from Nick Cadwallender. He organized a Columbarium/Memorial Garden project meeting on August 14, 2007.  That meeting reviewed John Coker’s work on a columbarium and quickly expanded that concept.  The goal was to set up way to deal with ashes in three ways:

  1. Store in urn in columbarium
  2. Store in a biodegradable urn
  3. Scatter in a garden 

The initial costs would be $4,000 to have William D. Reiley and Associates from Charlottesville come hear the committee’s ideas and to create a design.  Donations would come from interested parties, including the ECW, to defray costs.  The goal was to be able to pay for eventual construction and to set up a trust fund to care for the cemetery going forward.  The expectation is that the project would be self-funding.

The Rev. Gay Rahn added the idea to incorporate this project with the upcoming church renovation and perhaps work with Daniel and Company on the actual construction. 

Locations that were being considered were the George Street side of the church next to the wall or in the cemetery. The cemetery was the first choice.

In 2008, St. George’s formed a Memorial Garden Committee to construct a contemplative space where people’s ashes could be interred in ground or in niches. Benches would be provided for meditation and quiet reflection. The garden was planned to be located at the end of the current cemetery against McGuire Hall.

Wil Rieley, a landscape architect, was hired and provided architectural sketches of a garden and. The committee developed policies, a brochure and gave several presentations. His cost was $16,390 in 2008. 

Here is his design: Reiley Design for Memorial Garden March, 2008.

Daniel and Company, our contractor, provided estimates of costs. They provided three variations on the plans.  The base cost was $249,000 which included 256 niches, an allowance for picket fence to match the Princess Anne Street, costs to move existing graves ,allowance to investigate possible leaks in the underground utilities and landscaping. Another $25,000 could be added for a new sidewalk and step configuration and finally $73,500 for a ramp option.

There were two parts of the proposed garden – 1. burial of cremains 2. niches. The burial of cremains would be in the green space in the enclosures above with a plaque on the outside wall of McGuire with names. Niches were canisters placed on the outside of one of the 5 “U” and 1 “L” shaped enclosures. Each canister would have a faceplate for a commemorative inscription and would hold one person’s ashes.  

There would be 256 niches. The 2008 price was $3,000 and there were plans to increase to $4,000 in 2009.  Each niche would hold one urn. The price would include opening and closing, Service at Gravesite, Choice of available Niche   locations and perpetual care of the Memorial Garden There will be no urns for in-ground internment. The financial goal is to have the whole project to be self-funding. 

Funds were collected for the niches with the idea to complete the garden while Daniel was finishing renovation of the Church in 2009. 

Jim Dannals began the burial of cremains only in 2009 in the area surrounding Faulkner Hall where the Faulkners were buried.  That was to be only one solution before the columbarium project began. Sonny Singleton in April, 2009 was the first burial in this specific area for the burial of cremains

The 2008 project was hampered by the developing recession coupled with a stiff price that had to be paid.  By March 2010, they needed 120 pledges but had only received 19.

The church also looked at providing grave sites in other locations. It was reported that up to 10 plots were available for the Church that could be used for burials or the Church could sell. They also advertised a plot they owned in Sunset Memorial Gardens.

In March, 2010, a new committee was formed to revive a portion of the original design. To provide direction for this effort, a survey was done in April, 2010 but only interested 30 people. A second survey was done a month later with over 80 people.

The survey revealed that the interest in a columbarium was not there to justify moving forward. Two major conclusions:

  1. There was a significant percentage (39% or 32 of the 83) in this survey that were not interested in either option or had previous plans to be buried somewhere else. That limited the population for a significant investment, particularly one which requires substantial development of the cemetery.
  2. There was clearly a greater interest in the inground option vs. columbarium based on the number of “yes/no” responses. Inground was supported by a majority of people both in terms of those that answered “yes” (60%) and the smaller percentage of “no” responses (10%). Over half, 54% would invest within 6 months of the survey.

There was no further action on the columbarium after the survey.

Burials of cremains have continued since that time. Price is $500 which provides for a plaque (Metal Designs LTD) with names and dates as well as perpetual care.