Many cultures prefer to bury their dead in cemeteries or single graves, but this requires a lot of land. Cremating the dead and storing the ashes in a building or other chamber is often a more practical solution. This kind of structure, called a columbarium, has a long history and continues to be used today.
The Western concept of the columbarium -- plural “columbaria” -- originated in ancient Rome, where the word originally referred to a dovecote, a similar structure for housing pigeons. Columbaria for housing the remains of the deceased originated with the Romans about 25 B.C., and were typically in underground vaults. Some were built by the rich for their current or former slaves, while others were maintained by societies called collegia that reserved the spaces for their paying members.
Columbaria are still in use in the Western world today. They are a common part of military cemeteries, and private companies specialize in building columbaria for any cemeteries that want one. They have also long been incorporated in cathedrals, allowing believers to be laid to rest in a holy place. Meanwhile, in East Asian cultures, a Buddhist temple often hosts its own columbarium, where the spirits of the deceased are attended to regularly with prayers and religious ceremonies. Crowded cities such as Hong Kong and Singapore also rely on government-managed, or sometimes private, columbaria to provide resting places for the deceased.
- Merriam-Webster Dictionary: Columbarium
- University of Pennsylvania: Greek and Roman Mythology: Columbarium
- Commemorating the Dead: Texts and Artifacts in Context; Ed. Laurie Brink, O.P. and Deborah Green
- U.S. National Cemetery Administration: Cemetery Components - Columbarium and In-Ground Cremain Burials
- Premier Columbaria: Cremation Memorial Specialists
- Wat Ananda Metyarama Thai Buddhist Temple: New Columbarium
- Karma Triyana Dharmachakra: The Dewachen Columbarium at Karme Ling Retreat Center
- Grace Cathedral: The Columbarium
- CNN: Hong Kong Fights to Find Space for the Dead
- Singapore National Environment Agency: Government-Managed Columbaria
- ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images News/Getty Images