San Francisco Archbishop George Niederauer has given his approval to plans by a Dominican parish to build a columbarium with 320 niches for the cremated remains of parishioners, the archdiocesan newspaper Catholic San Francisco reports.
The newspaper described the plans at St. Dominic’s Catholic Church as “a first for the Archdiocese of San Francisco, and a sign of how things have changed from the past when the Catholic Church banned cremation except for extraordinary circumstances such as an outbreak of the plague.”
“A columbarium is a building or portion of a building where niches are placed to house cremated remains to honor and remember our deceased family and friends,” says the parish website.
“It is estimated that niche prices will vary from $4,200 to $15,200 depending upon location of the niche,” according to St. Dominic’s website. “This price is for up to 2 persons per niche. There will also be opening fees.”
“St. Dominic’s proposed columbarium is an example of how prevalent cremation has become, particularly in California, the state with the highest number of cremations in the country with 107,769 in 2009,” reported the Dec. 9 edition of Catholic San Francisco. “Forty-six percent of Californians chose cremation over whole body burial in 2009, according to the Cremation Association of North America. Nationally, cremations rose from 33 percent in 2004 to 38 percent in 2009, according to the association report.”
Some observers have concluded that the rise in cremation can be attributed in part to the bad economy. In an example provided in a Dec. 9 New York Times article on the subject, the family of a 54-year-old woman who died from cancer spent a total of $1600 when it opted for cremation -- compared to $10,000 to $16,000 for a traditional burial and funeral.
Archbishop Niederauer’s approval for the parish columbarium “was specific to the circumstances at St. Dominic, which is owned by the Dominican Order,” the archdiocesan newspaper reported. “In general, the archdiocese recommends burial or interment at Holy Cross or one of the other Catholic cemeteries in the archdiocese.”
“This is not a precedent,” the archbishop was quoted as saying by Catholic San Francisco. “If there are other parishes that want to proceed with this in the future, we need to approach those requests on a parish by parish basis, judging the situation individually.”
The niches in the columbarium at St. Dominic’s will be available only to registered parishioners. Holy Cross Cemetery -- the archdiocesan cemetery in Colma -- already provides for cremated remains either by traditional burial, above-ground indoor and outdoor marble niches, and glass-front niches in the cemetery’s All Saints Mausoleum.
Other dioceses in California also operate cemeteries designed to handle cremated remains. In the Oakland diocese, the Mausoleum at the Cathedral of Christ the Light includes 1850 niches for cremated remains, which can cost as little as $1500 or as much as $110,000. The mausoleum below the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles includes 4794 niches for urns containing cremated remains.
In the dioceses of San Jose, Orange and Sacramento, Catholic cemeteries provide burial, mausoleums and niches to handle cremated remains.
Permitting cremation is relatively new to the Church, which forbade it -- except in rare circumstances -- until 1963. In 1997, the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments further refined the Church’s position, authorizing local bishops to set their own policies on whether cremated remains may be present at funeral Masses. Canon law on the subject has also changed, with the 1983 edition lifting a ban on cremation that had been in the 1917 Code.
“While the Church favors traditional burial, it now allows cremation,” explains a section on the Sacramento diocesan website about cremation. “In the past the Church prohibited cremation because the practice had been associated with a denial of the Christian belief in the resurrection of the dead and the immortality of the soul. The Church removed this prohibition in 1963 and now forbids cremation only if it is done ‘for reasons that are contrary to Christian teaching.’”