To many this is a new word Columbaria, the plural of columbarium a place to entomb cremated remains. Believe it or not I have always wanted to design Columbaria. As building types go the columbarium is a rare project so I relished the opportunity to work with the State of Missouri Veterans Administration to complete this design. The columbarium in Higginsville Missouri is a wall in the landscapes not really a building but the history of columbaria includes locating them inside churches, under churches and in gardens or cemeteries adjacent to churches. Most faiths have a history of entombing cremated remains and have differing approaches or rituals but historically columbaria have been a part of the religious experience. Today it is a cost-effective and conservation minded approach to burials but also columbaria can create an opportunity for communities to create another way for members to stay connected by creating gardens or integrating columbaria into the interior of a church.
The design at Higginsville places a continuous wall into a hillside creating a small garden space facing a lake and the main grounds of the cemetery. Many columbaria become monotonous in their rigid use of the grid of niches. Higginsville allowed us to break the niches into smaller sections and to bend the wall to break up the panels into scaled sections this also helped us with the numbering system allowing us to add row and range numbers periodically along the wall. This is done in a subtle way by sand blasting the stone. Services are performed at a committal shelter then the family gathers at the wall as the ashes are placed and the niche cover is installed. The design allows for small gathering of people in front of each wall section and provides for the installation of benches. The design may seem restrained but this is pretty wild for the VA. On the state level Missouri has allowed each cemetery to have its own identity. The stone is variegated Indiana limestone, the granite is from Cold Spring in Minnesota, the pavers are manganese iron spot deep blue to purple from Endicott in Nebraska.
I had an opportunity while working Oakland California, to visit a columbarium designed by Julia Morgan, The Chapel of the Chimes. The design is so cool as it integrates day-lighting, stained glass, cast concrete, tile mosaics and glass fronted niches that allow the urns to visible. This is done in a gothic style but with a heavy dose of the arts & craft tradition of Northern California. The urns are really interesting too, some are shaped like sculptures and others like books as each family member gets added there is another volume. There are several additions forming a maze of courtyards creating vistas through the building and stepping up the hillside. If you get the chance it is a must see both for the columbarium and the chapel.
The final image is a close up of a columbarium in Paris with a wide variety of stone covers and fonts creating a pretty vibrant image, I do not think the VA will go for this.
John E Freshnock
WSKF Architects Inc.