June 8, 2016

A Place for Those who Came Before

Sometimes four generations of family sit together in my church. Even after nearly five years, I’m still learning who is related. New priests for this congregation should get a family-tree chart as part of their welcome package!

Honoring those who came before us is an important tradition for this congregation. And soon, we will have another way to incorporate this value.

Our church building was built in 1910, and there is no churchyard cemetery. Given its location in the heart of town, there’s no practical way to start one. But we will soon install a columbarium in the chapel, providing a way for the ashes of loved ones to be placed in holy space.

The first (and second and third and ongoing) step was education. While some people appreciated the concept of a columbarium, others were completely wigged out about it. The idea of sitting next to cremated remains on Sunday morning didn’t seem all that appealing. But it’s not such a strange idea. After all, we believe that when we come together for worship and gather around the altar, we’re all there together, the church past, present, and future. And it’s not like the ashes are sitting out, waiting for a brisk wind to dust folks’ Sunday best. The ashes are placed in individual niches, which are then locked.

After some time spent in educating the congregation, a committee chosen by the vestry and rector moved forward with research. Would it be inside or outside? How many would we need? Would people buy into it?

This process was slow, purposefully so. It was important to teach people and let them warm up to the idea. The priest knew he had reached a turning point in the deliberations when a longtime parishioner came up to him and said, “You can’t build the columbarium quickly enough. I’ve had my mom and dad on top of my refrigerator in the basement for the past fifteen years. We had to dig them up from under a tree that had to be cut down to make way for a church expansion.”

So the project progressed.

This summer, we’ll begin installation. Two woodworkers in the church are building beautiful cabinets. The locking configuration of the church is being changed so that section of the building can be open day and night, for anyone who wants to sit with a loved one. The rector emeritus made the first purchase for his wife, who passed away two years after his retirement. Several other niches have been purchased and others reserved. And any discomfort has dissipated as people look forward to establishing this new-to-them-but-ancient tradition in the congregation.

I can imagine a day when five or six generations are together in the church. Three or four sitting in the pews, and a couple in the columbarium niches, all bound by the Spirit across space and time and beloved by God. 

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