Better than a Cemetery: A Presbyterian church offers an alternative

The Chapel Garden of the Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church began as the idea of one man. Though he had long admired the quaint and lovely cemetery surrounding the nearby Episcopal Church, he realized that there was no possibility of replicating it. But in 1978, when he learned that 40 to 50 percent of our church funerals involved cremation, he had an idea. He talked to the senior pastor about the possibility of a church columbarium, a place where members and their families could inter the cremated remains of their loved ones.

A year of research ensued, a year in which he explored the financial feasibility of such an undertaking, township regulations, and possible locations on the church property (one indoor and one outdoor). He then presented a formal proposal to the council.

Members of the council liked the idea and ruled that the outdoor location was more suitable than the indoor. It was more visible, they noted. Also, it would provide many more spaces for urns, and it would more closely resemble a cemetery.

The Church Property Committee then got involved. They looked into such matters as what form the columbarium should take, how much it would cost, and whether it could become self-supporting. A letter describing the project and soliciting feedback was sent to the entire congregation.

When the congregation indicated its support for the concept, planning and preparation moved ahead. A committee was established to determine final location and design; to plan for construction; to oversee costs, administration, and sales; to ascertain legal responsibilities; and to handle communications with the congregation. This committee was also charged with selecting a name for the columbarium.

The Plan Takes Shape

A columbarium usually refers to an indoor area of burial niches to house urns that contain the ashes of cremated church members. In recent years the term has also been used to identify an outdoor plot of ground. The Bryn Mawr congregation selected an area between a walkway and the outer stone wall of the chapel. A low, matching stone wall, topped by a wrought-iron fence, was built along the walk, one end bounded by the cloister and the other by a small garden. From that location grew the name: Chapel Garden. The garden is approximately twenty feet by sixty feet, an area that provides sites for about three thousand urns.

A grid was laid out with masonry lintels and drainage materials at the bottom. Vertical square terra cotta pipes with cement lids were placed next, surrounded with additional drainage materials, and landscaped with dirt and sod. Each pipe was designed to hold three or four units (or urns), but experience has shown that more urns can be accommodated. Usually families buy an entire site, but if not, urns are separated by metal dividers.

The council and trustees of the church appointed a Chapel Garden committee to determine the cost of a site to buyers and to draw up regulations and operating procedures. This committee would oversee the administration of the Chapel Garden. They also hired a part-time staff person to establish a record-keeping system, to maintain the file of interment permits (required by the state), and to handle sales.

Church members were informed of construction progress and were given a brochure that answered some of the questions they had raised about the columbarium. The brochure stated that units in the garden could be purchased only by church members themselves and their immediate families. Immediate family was defined as parents and children, whether or not they lived in one household or were church members. Other relatives were considered by the committee on a one-by-one determination. Sites were assigned in order on a first-come, first-served basis.

As sites were sold, the construction costs were amortized and subsequent income was placed in the church Endowment Fund. At the beginning, individual units cost $200; after six months that price was increased to $250. Interment costs are nominal and cover the opening of the site and the cost of the memorial plaque.

A Place of Dignity and Grace

The Chapel Garden has made a significant difference in the way members of our congregation make arrangements at the time of death. Since the first ashes were interred in the fall of 1980, about 515 units have been sold, and 138 persons have been interred in the columbarium. Some church members plan for their future needs by purchasing sites ahead of time, while others make arrangements, with the help of the pastor and other staff, at the time of a death.

In the grassy expanse of Chapel Garden, you will find no markers. Instead, the coordinates are identified by small round markers low on the wall. On the cloister wall hang boards, containing brass plaques that identify those who rest in the garden. Each plaque includes a person's name and the dates of his or her birth and death. In the cloister opposite the gate to the Chapel Garden is a bench that family members can use at any time.

A particularly poignant moment in the history of our Chapel Garden occurred a year ago. A young mother died of leukemia. "Rules" were relaxed, and the entire family, including the children, ages 7 and 10, were permitted to choose the site. The father knelt with his arms around the children and affirmed their connection to the church. He said, "Mommy will be interred here. After many, many years Daddy will be here. And many, many more years later, there will be a place for you. We are a family who loves the church, and every time we come to the Chapel Garden, we will be reminded of how much Mommy loved the church."

Today the Chapel Garden is an integral part of Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church. Sometimes a grandchild or another family member will place a single flower on the grass above the site of a loved one. At other times, they may place a memorial arrangement in the garden and mention the remembrance in the bulletin. On Christmas and Easter the church supplies flowers in memory of all who are interred in the garden.

The Chapel Garden is a place where members can be interred with dignity and grace. It is a tangible reminder of our faith, of the promise that ", .. neither death nor life ... neither the present nor the future .. . will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."

Martha Moore is editor of the Messenger newsletter, a seminar coordinator, and an assistant for mission, outreach, and stewardship for Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.


Reformed Worship 24 © June 1992 Worship Ministries of the Christian Reformed Church. Used by permission.