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cremation ashes in a typical columbrium

Keeping ashes in a Columbarium: what are they, why use them and what do they cost.


A columbarium is a wall with cavities designed to hold cremation urns or cinerary urns. Have look at the picture above, they are usually made of stone such as granite and each niche can hold a number of cremation urns (up to about 4). The niche faceplate usually has an inscription engraved upon it.

These are quite popular in the Europe and US but not so in UK, so:

  • Where do they originate?
  • Why do people use them?
  • What do they cost?

The name comes from the Latin for Dove as the niche resembles a dovecote where doves build their nest. It has gone on to mean a sepulchre for urns. They date as far back as Roman times (eg Columbarium of Pomponius Hylas) and maybe even further.

They are more popular in continental Europe, which is presumably how the custom migrated to the States.  As to why they have not really been more popular in the UK may be to do with how the dead are memorialised in more Catholic areas of continental Europe, there is more likelihood of a mausoleum based interring i.e. placement above the ground rather than burial.

There are some examples in the UK, most notably the Dukes and Duchesses of Buckinghamshire. They constructed a family Columbarium in Wotton in Buckinghamshire which appears to ape fashions from the continent and may relate to the change in the royal lineage as the Hanoverians had become the new dynasty, the percentage of people in the UK at the time being cremated was very small indeed.

But what psychological need do they fulfil that burying, keeping or scattering ashes does not (or at least not to the same extent).

Well I suppose it might be a case of continuing traditions; ‘my mum and dad are in one, so what is good enough for them is good enough for me’.  Maybe it is for people who believe ashes should be in a place that is specifically designed for the purpose, or that the deceased should be kept with others who have departed, a necropolis if you will. If that is the case it might make more sense than burying ashes.

Historically burying was ‘necessary’ if you don’t opt to cremate, but there is no need for ashes to be buried. You may feel you wish to keep the ashes at the cemetery or church and not want to scatter them in the garden of remembrance, thus a columbarium is a great choice. Placing the urn in a wall or columbarium means you can visit, connect directly with them, more like visiting a grave.

Perhaps we should have this as an option more widely available in the UK; after all we are big fans of bronze plaques at crematoria as a focal point of memorialisation. According to the Co-op’s survey 1 in 20 chose the crematoria as the last resting place, personally I think this figure seems a bit low, maybe this is likely in the future, but currently from our research I would think it was more likely around 1 in 10. Interestingly it would appear that there may be a very slight increase in their use, not so much at the crematoria but some churches like the idea that these could provide a good option particularly where space is limited, and also as an income stream.

So to the cost, they are not cheap. I can’t say my research is massively in-depth, but I did look at a number of columbarium in a range of locations and what I can say is that, as with most things, cost has a lot to do with location: inside a fine old church in London with a lot of history – pricey, outside in the grounds of a crematoria in Northern England not as pricey (but still not cheap).

Do be aware that absolutely everything has a price; the inscription, the vault opening and so on. A rough estimate of set up costs is around £400- £500 (although there big variance here). Nearly all options are on a lease basis, so you have the ongoing annual cost, not insignificant either.  From Fleetwood in Lancashire where the price is about £15 per year to £150 per year in St Bartholomew the Great, West Smithfield, London.

For more information on Columbarium

Despite the cost, the more I read about them the more I quite like them; I can see that they have a role particularly for a couple where one has departed first or maybe for children who are waiting to decide what to do with the ashes of their parents. They are not a permanent solution for most of us, due to leasing arrangement. However they certainly seem better than a brass plaque (which I personally don’t understand).

Perhaps we need to come up with a more considered or up-to-date version of a columbarium. How about one for those in the trade union movement in the style of those wonderfully symbolical early banners, or maybe for more creative souls a moving one like kinetic art so you become part of an installation … the next Turner Prize? Maybe one carved out of living rock (as a once-upon-a-time geologist I prefer in-situ rock) like a cliff face. I certainly think that parish churches could consider getting a local artist or sculptor to make one, that way they could save space and create an income stream… Ummmm what a world of possibilities there is for the modern columbarium!

ashes kept collumbarium

14 thoughts on “Keeping ashes in a Columbarium: what are they, why use them and what do they cost.

  1. Reply
    Stephanie - 6th January 2022

    My sister was interred without any of the family. If we get permission from her wife, can it be opened so that we might place some pictures in it? We live in NY

    1. Reply
      Richard Martin - 11th January 2022

      To be honest Stephanie I am not sure – I would think so be there may be different rules in the US. I would contact the site where the columbarium is situated.
      Kind regards

  2. Reply
    Ben - 28th April 2021

    Can you please tell me what’s the reason why you can’t put all the ashes into the wall? They told me they put half and half you can take back it they scatter in garden

    1. Reply
      Richard Martin - 4th May 2021

      That sounds very strange. A niche that does not accommodate all the ashes?! Where is this location?

  3. Reply
    Julie Hollings - 5th October 2020

    Does it matter whether the niche is above or below ground when storing ashes?

    1. Reply
      Richard Martin - 5th October 2020

      What a good question Julie! You have stumped me, I will see if I can find out.

      1. Reply
        Julie Hollings - 6th October 2020

        Many thanks!


        1. Reply
          Richard Martin - 6th October 2020

          No Problem. I was thinking about this, in what sense do you mean. Whether it is a committal? And do you need licence to exhume if you changed your mind? Are you thinking of one of these underground stone long barrows?

    2. Reply
      Dawn Copeland - 1st May 2021

      How much is a family vault

      1. Reply
        Richard Martin - 4th May 2021

        Each Columbarium has there own pricing structure, it is difficult to generalise.

  4. Reply
    Sam - 11th February 2020

    This is going to sound silly but here goes! 3 days ago I put my parents in to a niche with a plaque saying who they were. I haven’t stopped regretting it since. I wish I hadn’t been railroaded in to this decision, I wasn’t ready. Can I take them out?

    1. Reply
      Richard Martin - 11th February 2020

      Hi Sam
      I am sorry to hear that. In truth I don’t know. They may offer a cool down period which allows you to change your mind, if so you are likely still to be charged for the plaque as the work has been carried out. First step would be to approach your funeral director or the person who arranged it. I would do this sooner rather than later as there may be a time limit.
      Kind regards

  5. Reply
    Julie Hollings - 28th January 2020


    Are you allowed to touch/move an urn in a columbarium? I know you can’t if they are buried, but not sure if above ground?

    1. Reply
      Richard Martin - 28th January 2020

      It depends on who runs the Columbarium, but generally yes.

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