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What is a Columbarium: The Urn Storage Area Explained

Aren’t sure what a columbarium is? Trying to find out what they’re used for, where they’re found or how much space in a columbarium costs? Then read on.

If you’ve been searching for a place to store a loved ones ashes or are planning your own funeral arrangements you may have come across the term ‘columbarium’.

It’s not that well known but plays an important part in the cremation process.

And with planning for how to deal with a loved ones remains or even thinking ahead about your own place of resting it’s important to be fully informed of all your options.

So, let’s dive into it.

Table of Contents
What is a Columbarium?
History of the Columbarium
What is a Columbarium Niche?
How does a Columbarium Work?
What does a Columbarium Cost?
What is the Difference Between a Mausoleum and a Columbarium?
Why is it Called a Columbarium?
Where are Columbarium Found?
Why Choose One?

What is a Columbarium

A columbarium is an area used to store the ashes of the deceased who have been cremated. Those ashes are kept in urns and the urns are placed inside “niches”, or compartments, within the columbarium. The columbarium itself can be either a wall, room or entire building.

As a place where the remains of loved ones are kept it is seen as sacred, much like a cemetery or grave, and thus treated with the same respect and reverence.

History of the Columbarium

Columbarium’s can be traced back as far as Roman times. Cremation was very popular with the Romans and Rome itself boasted many columbarium’s.

For the most part they were nondescript buildings, with walls containing the niches and urns built around an open area for families to visit. They could however be extremely ornate and decorated, and this has led to their remains providing great detail of an overlooked part of Roman life.

Cremation was eventually replaced by inhumation during Hadrian’s reign (AD 117-138) and so columbaria were no longer used. It wasn’t until cremation became popular again in the 20th century that columbarium’s began to make a comeback and be widely used once more.

top down view of a columbarium

What is a Columbarium Niche?

A columbarium niche is the area or compartment within the columbarium where the urn containing a deceased’s ashes or remains is placed and stored. The niches make up the columbarium which can either be a basic area with shelves to hold the urns or a detailed, beautiful and ornate construction to fully honor those who have passed away.

Each niche will usually have a plaque to signify the person laid to rest there. Alongside that is an area to leave tributes or flowers to the commemorate the deceased.

When choosing a columbarium niche there are often offered varying sizes as well as fancy designs, and the prices increase accordingly. So a smaller, basic niche with little in the way of design will be more affordable than a far more elaborately marked, large option that could become quite pricey.

simple columbarium niches

How does a Columbarium Work?

Columbarium work as part of the burial or memorial process. Once cremation has taken place the ashes of a loved one are placed inside an urn. This urn is then stored within a columbarium niche (as mentioned above), where it remains a memorial of the deceased. It can then be visited and tributes paid.

What does a Columbarium Cost?

Purchasing a space or niche within a columbarium costs, on average, between $500 – $800. That is for a standard sized 9x9x9 inch single area (so a compartment for one urn). This will of course vary depending on the location and cemetery the niche is bought from. More desirable parts of the country will demand a higher price and vice versa.

Columbarium niches also come in larger sizes. You can buy a couple or family unit so that the entire family is stored in the same area. These can be purchased before the eventual passing if requested by a family member.

There is also the option to lease an area in a columbarium for a set period. If you’re unsure of the location and think it’s possible you may want to move the deceased’s ashes at some point then leasing can be a good option.

What is the Difference Between a Mausoleum and a Columbarium?

The main difference between a mausoleum and a columbarium is their use. A columbarium is a place where a loved ones cremated remains can be stored and visited, whereas a mausoleum is where a loved ones casket and body are laid to rest. The two terms are often mixed up and thought to mean the same thing but are in fact very different.

If a loved one had chosen to be cremated then their ashes, if not scattered or kept at home, will likely be kept in an urn within a columbarium.

If a loved one has decided to be buried then they will be interred in a casket and either a grave or mausoleum.

To make things slightly more confusing a columbarium can actually be part of a large mausoleum, but is still a very separate entity that provides it’s own service.

Whilst they are very different in their nature mausoleum’s and columbarium’s both allow for family and loved ones to visit and pay their respects to the deceased.

Why is it Called a Columbarium?

The name ‘columbarium’ comes from the Latin word “columba”, which means “dove”. It originally referred to the dovecote, a housing used for pigeons and doves that is made up of compartments. The compartments of a columbarium are very similar to those of the dovecote and so the name was born.

Where are Columbarium Found?

If you’re actively seeking a columbarium for possible use then your local church should be able to help you find the nearest one

Generally speaking columbarium’s are found as part of cemeteries. However they are also increasingly becoming part of churches and crypts. Mostly they are separate buildings found on the grounds of a church or cemetery but can be adjoined to or have their own room as well.

Why Choose One?

After a loved one has been cremated many people are unsure of what to do with the ashes.

Some find the idea of keeping the urn in their house uncomfortable. Others either don’t know where would be best to scatter the ashes or would prefer to have something of their loved one to actually visit (just not in their home).

This makes a columbarium niche a perfect choice.

For many religions the ashes of those cremated are seen as sacred and should not be kept at home or scattered in a place of ones choosing. Or the cultural norm is to store ashes in this way.

This again makes using a columbarium a good option for those who’s faith follows along these lines but wish to be cremated.

There are some more practical reasons for choosing a columbarium too:


  • Maintenance – a traditional burial or grave requires upkeep and maintaining over time. A columbarium niche for an urn is far simpler and less costly.
  • Price – The price of a casket, burial plot etc. is far more than an averagely priced columbarium niche.
  • Environment – cremation and then inurnment is much better for the environment than a traditional burial. Not only does it save so much more space but an area of earth isn’t dug up and can be kept as it is and no chemicals need to be used on ashes.
  • Memorial – if a loved one chooses to be cremated it means you don’t have a dedicated place to actually visit and remember them. A columbarium gives you that permanent, physical memorial you can visit whenever you choose.


  • Religion – Many religions specify burial or certain practices when dealing with the deceased. In this case a columbarium isn’t an option.
  • Preference – a loved one may have strong views on how they want their ashes to be dealt with and it may not include a columbarium.


The obvious alternative is to scatter the ashes of a loved one whilst saying a few words to remember them. This is a common and thoughtful way to mark their memory and is often a place of their choosing that means a lot to them.

Other ways to store cremated ashes include:

  • A cremation plot – much like a grave you purchase a small plot of land for the ashes to be buried in.
  • A memorialised cremation – you can place some if the ashes in a something like jewellery; a locket or necklace perhaps, keeping a loved one close by.
  • You can make a tree with the ashes or even turn them into a tattoo! There so many choices out there.

We hope this guide has proved helpful and you now understand what a columbarium is and whether it’s the right choice for yourself or a loved one. The planning of such events can be difficult but it pays to have as much knowledge and be fully aware of all the options that are out there.

what is a columbarium

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