If you aren’t in the cemetery, cremation or funeral business, it’s understandable you wouldn’t know the difference between an ossuary and a columbarium – or even what they are.
A columbarium (the plural is columbaria), is a structure that houses urns holding cremated remains. They can vary in size from a wall or free-standing structure in a cemetery to an elaborate building with thousands of niches to permanently memorialize and house cremated remains. Spectacular examples of such historic buildings include the Columbarium at Fresh Pond Crematory, first built in 1884, and the San Francisco Columbarium, built in 1898.
An ossuary, a repository for human skeletal remains, can take many forms. It can be a chest, box, building, well, cave or other dedicated site for bones. Throughout history, they were frequently used where burial space was scarce. Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Jews and Zoroastrians used ossuaries. The body was first buried in a temporary grave, then a few years later, the skeletal remains were moved into an ossuary. Skulls and bones were often artfully arranged inside ossuaries.
In modern U.S. cemeteries and churches, an ossuary offers a permanent resting place for co-mingled cremated remains, often in an underground vault or chamber, with memorialization on a plaque above or nearby. The bones left after cremation are pulverized, resulting in about five to eight pounds of cremated remains for an average size adult.
In this short video, Brent Thorson with Eickhof Columbaria explains columbaria and ossuaries for cemeteries.
In addition to free standing columbaria, Eickhof offers an obelisk with niches that also serves as the entry point in which to drop cremated remains into an ossuary below. It can hold the remains of up to 950 bodies. They also offer “satin urns” to personalize and keep cremated remains separate within the ossuary.
There’s more information at www.EickhofColumbaria.com.
Given the growth in cremation, cemeteries and churches can expand the number of resting places they offer for cremated remains by adding columbaria or ossuaries on their properties. Some churches actually place these structures within the walls of the church.