The Ancient Christian Tradition of Burial Within the Church
Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church (MAPC) has established a columbarium where its members, friends and their loved ones may have their lives memorialized, and their cremated remains housed and safeguarded in a dedicated space adjacent to Dana Chapel and the Sanctuary.
Burial within or near the worship space of the Christian community is a practice that reaches back to the days of the catacombs. By the fourth century, when Christians were first permitted to own public buildings, many churches were erected over the burial sites of apostles, saints and other martyred church leaders. Burial, or inhumation, had replaced the earlier practice of cremation during the second century. Consequently, when Christians died, they sought places within or nearby their place of worship where their bodies could be buried. Thus began the long Christian tradition of burial in crypts below church sanctuaries, beneath floor stones in naves, chapels and crossings, and on adjoining ground in what would become church cemeteries.
The value and limited availability of property in New York City has made burial difficult, if not impossible, for residents of the city, causing people to search for burial sites in expensive commercial cemeteries situated in outlying or distant communities. During the last fifty years, with the continuing decrease in available church cemetery space and the escalating costs associated with burial in commercial cemeteries, Christians have begun to embrace the ancient practice of cremation, placing their loved one’s remains in a church columbarium.
What is a Columbarium?
A columbarium is an assembly of niches designed to house urns containing a deceased person’s cremated remains. The word comes from the Latin word columba, meaning “dovecôte” (dove house), which named the structure of brick niches housing cremated remains in the Roman Empire. The word also came to be used to describe places where Christians gathered for prayer, and lies behind our English word for chapel. For Christians, the imagery of the dove is a witness to the Holy Spirit, “the Lord and giver of life,” who sustains us not only in this life but in life eternal, and who is the giver of comfort and peace.
Cremation and Christian Belief
“I am the resurrection and the life,” says the Lord. “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11:25-26)
Christians know God to be Lord of both life and death, and trust in Jesus Christ and the power of his resurrection. They commit their bodies to the earthly finality expressed in the words, “ashes to ashes and dust to dust,” doing so in sure and certain hope of God’s power to raise them to new and everlasting life. Consequently, cremation is not only an appropriate Christian means of caring for the body once one has died-increasingly, it is also a matter of good and faithful stewardship.
Why a Columbarium at MAPC?
The columbarium makes it possible for members and Christian friends of MAPC to have their cremated remains and those of their loved ones placed with those of others who have worshiped and worked in this place. The columbarium, Read Chapel, is named in memory of the Reverend Dr. David H. C. Read, distinguished and beloved pastor of Madison Avenue from 1956 until his retirement in 1989, and Pastor Emeritus from 1989 until his death in 2001. This lasting testament to Dr. Read’s life, faith and work will also provide a similar memorial to all inurned therein, bearing witness to their relationship with this church and community of faith. In establishing the columbarium, the Session also believes that it is serving an ever growing need for many in the congregation and community who no longer have family in their places of origin, who would like their remains inurned in a place of permanence in this city and who want to avoid the high costs of earth burial.
The columbarium has been developed in two stages, the first of which is located in the north alcove between the Sanctuary and Dana Chapel. A second, and much larger addition, will be installed when the Phillips Building is renovated later this decade. Dr. Read’s niche is currently in the first stage of the columbarium, but will be moved to the larger addition once that is complete. This current installation contains 60 single niches and 115 companion niches (with space for two urns, one behind the other) that are faced with Crème Marfil marble, where the name and years of birth and death of the deceased will be inscribed.
Active members, or non-members who are Christian, may purchase a niche with a right to inurn. The choice of niche location is by order of purchase. The cost for a single niche is $3,000 for church members and $5,000 for non-members. Companion niches with space for two urns cost $5,000 for church members and $8,000 for non-members. A purchaser may pay the fee in full immediately or in annual installments, with an initial down payment of $1,000 followed by yearly payments of $1,000 until the full fee has been paid.
The right to a specific location cannot be secured, nor the niche used, until the purchase fee has been paid in full. Purchase price of the niche includes the expense of the urn. The additional cost of inscribing names and dates on the marble faceplate will be billed following inurnment. Those purchasing companion niches may inurn a relative or friend who is not Christian in their second niche. Those who purchase a niche in the first stage of the columbarium, but who wish to be located in the second stage (once it is constructed) must indicate so at the time of purchase.
Requests for application for purchase should be directed to the church’s business office.
Provision has been made for discretionary niches that allow the church to provide space for deceased persons whose circumstance do not make possible the purchase of a niche. Members and friends are encouraged to consider the funding of such niches, the cost of which will be attributed as a gift to the church.