What Is a Columbarium?

A flower gracing the niche of a columbarium.
... ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images News/Getty Images

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.

1 Roman Columbaria

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.

2 Modern Columbaria

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.

Evan Centanni specializes in world cultures and human geography. He grew up in Oregon, but has since lived in two other countries and traveled to many more. Centanni is editor of Political Geography Now at www.polgeonow.com. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in international studies and linguistics from the University of Oregon.