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More than a Mausoleum
The term columbarium is often used interchangeably with the word mausoleum, but, in fact, the two types of memorial buildings have different purposes. While both are intended to be permanent public memorials for groups of dozens, or even hundreds, of people, mausoleums are designed for entire bodies while columbariums typically house cremation urns. That said it is true that many of today’s memorial buildings are design for both full bodies and cremation urns, and in these cases, the buildings are often called simply “mausoleums.”
The term columbarium, it seems, may be on the decline in the memorial industry, and there are a number of reasons for that. Below is a brief discussion of why the term mausoleum may be gradually displacing the term columbarium and a number of other important and interesting facts about columbariums. The term columbarium does not have its roots in the memorial industry while mausoleum certainly does.
Columbarium has come to Modern English from the Italian word Columba, which means “dove.” The world’s first “columbariums” in Ancient Rome had nothing to do with human memorials. Rather, they were homes for large communities of pigeons and doves, which, have long been commonly raised for many domestic purposes. Just as in today’s columbariums built for cremation urns, the original columbariums consisted of dozens, or even hundreds or thousands, of small shelves, called “niches.” In the first columbariums, the niches housed birds. Today, they are permanent homes for cremation urns each filled with human ashes.
The word mausoleum, meanwhile, has always been directly associated with human memorials. The large, legendary tomb of ancient Persian King Mausolus – which is usually counted as one of the 7 wonders of the Ancient World – is considered the first “mausoleum.” That incredibly elaborate tomb housed Mausollo’s body as well as those of a number of his family members and close associates, and much smaller scale memorial buildings patterned after the Mausollos example became very common in the preceding centuries. The tradition became so popular, of course, that the word mausoleum resulted.
Besides housing urns instead of pigeons, today’s columbariums have changed dramatically in many other ways as well. The first columbariums used for cremation urns were built in Ancient Asia by Buddhists whose faith has always preferred cremation. These buildings were typically very elaborate structures patterned after Buddhist temples of the time.
Today’s columbariums, mean while, take a variety of forms and are, occasionally quite elaborate structures. But, more often, they follow elegant-but-simple architectural designs and are part of large, urban cemeteries and – because they can house many people of different religions -- have no blatantly religious themes in themselves. (Religious décor often adorns the individual niches and/or urns for ashes.) Many churches across the globe have columbariums built into their structures or erected onto their grounds, but even these columbariums are usually very simple designs that do not necessarily call attention to themselves but, rather, give their residents a peaceful, eternal resting place.
As more evidence that the word columbarium is being gradually replaced by mausoleum, many cemeteries, churches and other memorial organizations have built “mausoleums” to house entire bodies but devote a portion of those buildings to “columbariums.” It is not unreasonable to guess that, eventually, the memorial industry will not bother with the distinction and will simply call all public memorial buildings – whether intended for ashes or for whole bodies – mausoleums.