Columbaria in churches – a short note

In the recent judgment Re Peel Cathedral [2021] EC Sodor 2, the Vicar General and Chancellor of the Diocese of Sodor and Man granted a faculty inter alia for the creation of a columbarium in the North Vestry of the cathedral [1] Further to his comment that the presence of a columbarium is “relatively novel in Anglicanism” [17], this post provides a brief review of columbaria, and the aspects of ecclesiastical law involved.

Columbaria, mausolea and time-limited storage

In general, a columbarium or a cremation niche is for the placement of cremation ashes, while a mausoleum tends to be a free-standing building for the burial of a full body after death, although some contain columbarium niches. Other methods for holding human remains are ossuaries such as those at Hythe, Kent; Rothwell, Northamptonshire; and Bamburgh, Northumberland, and mortuary chests such as those at Winchester Cathedral.

The term columbarium encompasses a wide variety of designs which may be within a building or outdoors; the issue is further complicated by the practice of some municipal cemeteries providing facilities for ashes which are limited to relatively short periods of time. The circular columbarium in the churchyard of St Mary’s Church, Broughton, however, is in fact a William and Mary dovecote.

Examples of columbaria

A non-exhaustive search revealed a number of columbaria, including those cited in the recent judgment, supra.

Church of England

Peel Cathedral: One component of the recent judgment Re Peel Cathedral [2021] EC Sodor 1 was the creation of a columbarium in the North Vestry, a feature which the Vicar General and Chancellor noted “is relatively novel in Anglicanism” [17]. The proposal for St German’s was “to incorporate bookcases in which would be placed individual books containing a tribute to the deceased in the form of a biography and a sealed container The Chancellor observed, “the creation of a dedicated area within the walls of a church or cathedral for the interment of cremated remains is not wholly unprecedented: Blackburn Cathedral has one and something similar is planned for St Bartholomew the Great in West Smithfield, in London”.

Blackburn Cathedral: A 1997 article in the Lancashire Telegraph carries a report of the Columbarium, “a room – no bigger than the lounge of an average terrace house – is the final resting place for around 150 Blackburn people”. “Its use is restricted to the cathedral congregation and anyone wanting to be laid to rest in the building has to apply to the provost”. At the time of the article, it was noted that spaces in the walls of the room were limited, only between 30 and 40 remaining, many of which had been reserved.

More recently, the Annual Chapter Report, 2018 describes the “forthcoming Life Treasury arrangement for the placement of cremated remains and keepsakes in a purpose-built cabinet within the Columbarium. Blackburn will be the first cathedral to have such a facility and has received a significant premium on its installation as well as the expectation of substantial revenue.”

St Bartholomew the Great, West Smithfield: In the post Is there space for Columbariums to be an option for ashes the UK? the Scattering Ashes blog notes that a columbarium is being considered for St Bartholomew the Great, West Smithfield. The article indicated that it would comprise 196 niches each of which can hold two sets of ashes. However, information from a former churchwarden of St Bartholomew’s indicates that this columbarium was never built. [See Comments, below]

SS Philip and James, Leckhampton: The judgment Re SS Philip and James [2018] Ecc Glo notes: “[i[n 1963 the church built a columbarium in its crypt for parishioners’ ashes, an early example in modern times for this use in a Victorian crypt. In 1982 the parish incorporated the former church of St James, Suffolk Square in Cheltenham”. In its reasoning for the designation as a Grade II* building, Historic England claim: “Historic interest: its crypt includes the first columbarium in the country, added in 1963”. The petition before the court included a number of developments including “improved access to the columbarium” [10], and underfloor heating which “must be properly installable above the columbarium” [15].

St Giles Cripplegate The Columbarium is adjacent to the church; operational and financial issues are included as an item in the Annual Report. The  Annual Report 2017 states:

“The Columbarium is much appreciated by the community and visited for the placing of flowers on anniversaries, birthdays, Mothering Sunday and All Souls’ as well on other occasions throughout the year. In 2017 there were few requests for the placing of ashes and one urn was added to an existing niche. Lease holders are advised that the columbarium is on a 99 year lease from the Corporation of London which is due to expire in 2063. Water penetration continues to damage stones and cause concern to relatives.”

There is a continuing problem with water ingress; the 2020 Annual Report and Accounts indicated that there is a Corporation of London waterproofing project which includes St Giles Terrace, and the Church has requested that this is prioritized  as part of the Corporation’s Churchyard Enhancement programme “but realistically it will be several years before work starts”.

St Mary Bourne Street The Columbarium at St Mary Bourne Street was designed by Roderick Gradidge (whose own ashes are interred here) and built in 1999 in a recess called by Goodhart-Rendel ‘the Crib’ but “which does not seem to have had any particular use previously”. Description and photographs on the church’s web page.

St Marylebone Parish Church in the Diocese of London has had a functioning Columbarium since at least the early 1980s. It is situated in the north east segment of the crypt and is accessed via a staircase in the north east vestibule.

St Paul’s, Semilong, in the Diocese of Peterborough, now demolished. The church had a Columbarium (albeit subterranean in the south west corner of the nave) from the 1980s until the parish church was closed for worship in the mid 1990s and later demolished. A majority of the caskets containing cremated remains were reburied under Faculty in the churchyard of St Sepulchre, Northampton, the neighbouring parish.

Other columbaria in England

St John the Baptist, Norwich The Columbarium at the Roman Catholic Cathedral Church in Norwich is in the vaulted undercroft at the east end, beneath the Sanctuary and the Blessed Sacrament Chapel which has been carefully restored and converted. Finely worked bronze cabinets containing individual niches are sited in the vaulted alcoves, with brass plaques commemorating each occupied niche. Following cremation, the ashes of the deceased are placed in specially designed urns and deposited in a designated niche during a service of interment.

Golders Green Crematorium Managed by the London Cremation Company plc: “columbaria at Golders Green are among the most extensive and finest in Europe. Placement of cremated remains in a niche can be arranged to suit individual wishes. Both sealed and open niches are available in the columbarium attached to the Chapel of Memory.”

St Marylebone Crematorium Also managed by the London Cremation, Company plc, there are both internal and external columbaria.

Columbaria in Scotland

In Scotland, there is a similar mix of old-established columbaria, such as that in the Glasgow Crematorium which was opened in 1895, and in Fife, the Kinghorn Community Land Association has commissioned the design of a columbarium, which houses urns and cremated remains.

This section has been augmented with the information provided in the valuable Comments, below. Many thanks to the contributors. 

Statutory and ecclesiastical law

The removal of a body or any human remains which have been interred in a place of burial is governed by s25 Burial Act 1857; this requires that the removal is:

  • in accordance with a faculty granted by the court;
  • in accordance with the approval of a proposal under the Care of Cathedrals Measure 2011 (No. 1) by the Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England or a fabric advisory committee; or
  • under a licence from the Secretary of State and in accordance with any conditions attached to the licence.

The secular and ecclesiastical regimes treat the above ground placement of ashes differently. When ashes are placed in a columbarium within to non-consecrated ground, the Ministry of Justice deems that they have not been buried and a “section 25 licence” is not required for their subsequent movement [2]. Likewise, on grounds of practicality, a licence is not required where ashes have been scattered [3]. By contrast, where the columbarium is on consecrated ground, the treatment of remains falls within the vires of the consistory court or the legislation concerning cathedrals. Under Rule 2,2(1) The Faculty Jurisdiction Rules 2015 (as amended):

“exhumation” includes the removal of a body (or part of a body) or of cremated human remains from a catacomb, mausoleum, vault or columbarium”.

Furthermore, the revised rules no longer permit the use of “additional matters orders” for “the exhumation or other disturbance of human remains”[4].

Columbaria and the consistory courts

As a consequence of the scarcity of columbaria within the Church of England, consistory court judgments concerning their creation or modification seldom feature. With regard to the impact on impact the architectural and historic character of the church building, the introduction of columbaria within churches is subject inter alia to the tests set out in Re St Alkmund, Duffield [2013] Fam 158.

However, considerations regarding the introduction of remains within a church, or their removal are not as straightforward. There is the overarching principle of the permanence of Christian burial, and the exceptional circumstances outlined by the Court of Arches in Re Blagdon Cemetery [2002] Fam 299, discussed in Bishop Christopher Hills’ Note for the Court, and its expanded version  “A Note on the theology of burial in relation to some contemporary questions”, (2004) 7 Ecc LJ 447. The case law associated with the use of churches for remains was summarized recently in Re St Mary and the Holy Rood Donington [2020] ECC Lin 1v infra.

Temporary storage 

In the case of Re Astwood Cemetery [2014] Worcester Const Ct, Mynors Ch. the consistory court considered the exhumation of ashes from a municipal cemetery after ten years, a consequence of its T&C [5], and their subsequent reburial elsewhere. We noted that other domestic municipal crematoria imposed similar, but more medium-term, conditions on the temporary storage of ashes; the facts of the case are considered in more detail in Time-limited storage of cremation “ashes”.

After reiterating the Faculty Jurisdiction Rules, Chancellor Mynors stated:

“[36]. I am not aware of any reported authority on the point, but it has probably always been assumed that a faculty is always required for exhumation – that is, any kind of exhumation. But that would of course include the removal of cremated remains from a columbarium”.

The Chancellor considered exhumation in circumstances where the original deposit of ashes was not intended to be permanent, stating [emphasis added]:

“[68]. It seems to me that the justification for the presumption against exhumation arises on the basis of an understanding of burial as being permanent…In some cases there may have been no such intention; the deposit may have been on a temporary basis, until a decision could be permanent as to the permanent disposal of the body or the ashes. That is indeed recognised by the time-limited arrangements offered at Astwood Cemetery and elsewhere. And there would seem to be no particular distinction according to whether the deposit was above or below ground level – what matters is the intention of those responsible at the time”,

“[69]. I thus consider that a faculty should not, as a matter of principle, be required where remains are to be removed from a chamber in circumstances where it can be shown that was assumed by all concerned that they were only deposited in the chamber in the first place on the clear understanding that the arrangement would be temporary…”

Removal from churchyard to columbarium

In Re Crigglestone Cemetery [2017] ECC Lee 3, the Chancellor refused to grant a faculty for the exhumation of the ashes of the petitioner’s son so that they might be placed in a niche or columbarium in the garden of the petitioner’s home. However, the rationale for this refusal was the movement of the ashes “from the consecrated part of Crigglestone Cemetery for their introduction into an unconsecrated domestic setting in the garden of the petitioner’s current home”, rather than its designation as a columbarium per se [13].

Placement of remains in churches – general considerations

Unsurprisingly, few diocesan “Churchyard Regulations” make reference to columbaria. However, those for the Gloucester Diocese contain sections relating to Vaults and above-ground funerary edifices and Interment within or below the church. The latter states [emphasis added]:

“Interment within or below the church itself requires a faculty in each case. It is recommended that an initial discussion is held with the parish priest, relevant Archdeacon and the DAC’s archaeological adviser before making a formal application”.

Whilst not mentioning columbaria specifically, these regulations would be applicable to each individual set of remains placed in the columbarium in SS Philip and James, Leckhampton, described above. Guidance from the Lincoln Diocese registry on Memorials inside Churches states:

As a general rule, the erection of memorials inside churches is not normally permitted. Anyone wishing to erect a memorial inside a church must apply for a Faculty, and must satisfy the Chancellor that a departure from the normal rule is justifiable, for example, because the person to be commemorated was a major benefactor of the church, or made some major contribution to the church or parish, or was an important local or national figure, etc.”

With regard to the  burial of the remains of the explorer Captain Matthew Flinders within the church in Donington (Lincs), Re St Mary and the Holy Rood Donington [2020] ECC Lin 1, the Chancellor held that there were 3 issues that fall to be determined [5]:

(i) the effect of closure of the church and churchyard to new burials by Orders in Council in 1864 and 1865, respectively; and whether the proposed burial in the church is now lawfully permitted;

(ii) whether the proposed reburial within a church should be permitted applying an exceptionality test; and

(iii) whether the exceptionality test is satisfied in respect of the memorial ledger stone that is proposed and whether the entire proposal satisfies the tests set out in Re St. Alkmund, Duffield [2013] Fam 158.

With regard to (i), in April 2020 the Queen by Order in Council, pursuant to her powers under S1 Burials Act 1855, ordered that an exception be added to the Orders made in Council by Queen Victoria to permit the burial under the North Aisle of the church. With regard to the exceptionality test (ii), the Chancellor considered Halsbury’s Laws of England, Ecclesiastical Law (Volume 34(2011)/8 para 1080, which stated that the practice of granting a faculty for the interment of cremated remains under the floor of a church is “sparingly granted” and “usually only where the deceased had been the incumbent of the parish concerned”; he noted that nevertheless, a faculty is not always granted in these circumstances, Mynors: Changing Churches (1st edition 2016) para. 13.7.6.

He summarized the case law on exceptionality [6] as:

[14]. “it is clear from these authorities that a faculty to permit the burial of cremated remains within a church will be exceptional and will never be lightly granted. Although every determination of what is exceptional will depend on the facts in the case, it is clear that Chancellors have been concerned with the issue of a precedent being set by the interment, particularly where no burials or interments in the church have occurred before. Additionally, they have had to be satisfied about the exceptionality of the life of the person whose remains are being interred and the ties that person had with that church.”

The case law considered [12, 13] included: Re Warner, Re All Saints, Stand [2007] Manchester Const. Ct, Tattersall Ch, (reported in ELJ [2008] 10 (2). 250), future interment of ashes of incumbent and wife – petition refused as would set precedent for this church; wife did not meet “exceptional criteria; Re St Peter, Folkestone 1982 1 WLR 1283, remains of priest refused, objections of congregation also precedent ground; In re St George’s Chorley 2017 ECC Bla 12, granted, distinguished from previous two cases, PCC decided in support; In re Christchurch Spitalfields 2004 23 CCCC 15, immurement of cremated remains of distinguished architect in that Hawksmoor church which had been an influence on his work.

Comment 

Although a common sight in mainland Europe, columbaria are rarer in the United Kingdom, and even less so in the Church of England. In view of the diminishing number of burial plots available and the popularity of cremation over burial [8], columbaria appear to provide a solution to the storage of ashes, an area of uncertainty for many of the bereaved. However, in addition to the legal considerations, it is necessary for a new venture to generate a sustainable income stream. An example of the financial issues involved in the development of new municipal facilities is provided in the Henley Standard which reported the deliberations of the council’s recreation and amenities committee on the charges and the lease period.


[1]. The Cathedral Church of Saint German or Peel Cathedral, rebranded as Cathedral Isle of Man in July 2015.

[2]. Question 3 of the MoJ Application for a licence for the removal of buried human remains (including cremated remains) in England & Wales states:

  • A licence should be sought for buried cremated remains in a container.
  • It is not practical to remove scattered remains. They are not considered to be buried and no licence is therefore required if they are to be disturbed.
  • The movement of cremated remains that are held above ground (eg. in a vault or columbarium) does not require a licence (but may require the consent of the owner or deed holder).
  • A licence should be sought to remove cremated remains kept in an underground crypt or vault.
  • If the remains have been placed in the grave without a container, it may not be practicable to remove them. Any application for a licence to do so will be considered in the light of advice from the burial authority.

[3].  “Scattering” is the broadcasting of the ashes into the air or the casting of them onto the ground without thereafter covering them; “strewing” is pouring of the ashes directly into the ground, or directly onto the ground before immediately covering them over with earth. R Bursell, Aspects of Burial and Exhumation, (2017) 19 Ecc LJ 169–192.

[4]. After the judgment in Re Astwood Cemetery was handed down, he arranged under section 11(8) of the Care of Churches and Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure 1991 for the list of minor matters that do not require a faculty to be amended to include circumstances such as these. However, as noted above, the revised rules no longer permit the use of “additional matters orders” in relation to “the exhumation or other disturbance of human remains”. 

[5]. The exclusive right to inter cremated remains and to display a granite plaque was granted for a period of only ten years. On the expiry of that period, the family of the deceased is offered an opportunity to renew the display of the plaque for a further period on payment of a further fee.

[6]. The case law considered [at12, 13] included: Re Warner, Re All Saints, Stand  [2007] Manchester Cons Ct, EccLJ 10 250, future interment of ashes of incumbent and wife – petition refused as would set precedent for this church; wife did not meet “exceptional criteria; Re St Peter, Folkestone 1982 1 WLR 1283, remains of priest refused, objections of congregation also precedent ground; In re St George’s Chorley 2017 ECC Bla 12, granted, distinguished from previous two cases, PCC decided in support; In re Christchurch Spitalfields 2004 23 CCCC 15, immurement of cremated remains of distinguished architect in that Hawksmoor church which had been an influence on his work.

[7]. The town council has spent about £90,000 on repairs to convert a disused non-conformist chapel into a space for storing cremation urns. The council’s recreation and amenities committee is recommending that the 220 niches be leased for a fixed period of 20 years with the cost being either £1,800 or £1,300 depending on the size. Non-residents will be charged triple.

[8]. 80.99% in England, Wales, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, 70.73% in Scotland, but only 22.22% in Northern Ireland, (2020 data, Cremation Society).

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "Columbaria in churches – a short note" in Law & Religion UK, 11 August 2021, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2021/08/11/__trashed-5/

 

3 thoughts on “Columbaria in churches – a short note

  1. St Marylebone Parish Church in the Diocese of London has had a functioning Columbarium since at least the early 1980s. It is situated in the north east segment of the crypt and is accessed via a staircase in the north east vestibule. St Paul’s, Semilong, in the Diocese of Peterborough (now demolished) had a Columbarium (albeit subterranean in the south west corner of the nave) from the 1980s until the parish church was closed for worship in the mid 1990s and later demolished. A majority of the caskets containing cremated remains were reburied under Faculty in the churchyard of St Sepulchre, Northampton, the neighboring parish.

  2. There are columbaria at St Giles Cripplegate and St Mary Bourne Street, the latter designed by Roderick Gradidge, and in which his ashes are interred. The St Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield columbarium was never built. Information supplied by Zoe McMillan, past churchwarden St Bart’s.

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