Miramar National Cemetery Columbarium Wall

At-Need Solutions Integrating Cremation with Burials

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By Christopher Mekus, AIA


It’s no surprise that the slow economy has affected pre-need sales in many cemeteries. An increasing amount of people are delaying their cemetery purchases until the need arises for a crypt or grave. This reduced pre-need revenue has ultimately affected capital development projects such as mausoleums, columbariums and garden crypt structures. As a result, these projects are now being developed on an at-need basis.

The slow economy is not the only issue affecting decision making in regards to cemetery buildings. With the rise in popularity of cremation burial options, a unique challenge has arisen for many cemeteries. There is a need for an economic design solution to integrating cremation with full body burials, without disrupting the fluidity of the existing site. Not only is this an issue for in-ground burials but for mausoleums and crypt complexes as well.

The shift from traditional belief systems to more modern approaches has allowed for new options in cemetery planning and design. While from a size standpoint, combining full body and cremation burial into the cemetery is challenging, a successful outcome can be achieved. You just have to plan for it. This shift has also given the cemeteries an opportunity to offer many new cremation burial choices that formerly did not exist.

With the demand for more options, cemeterians can see an increase in return on investment with cemetery buildings that offer the integration of burial types. More importantly there is an opportunity to create a new identity within the cemetery for cremation.

A successful and budget conscience design solution should increase inventory options, lay the groundwork for future expansion, and provide for strategic pre-need and at-need sales plans.

When planning for a mausoleum or garden crypt complex, choosing a phased construction approach is an economic option that allows the cemetery to build space as it is needed. While the entire project is designed up front for all future needs, it is constructed in phases on an at-need basis. Each phase of the construction process should be completed as a fully finished piece to prevent an “added-on” or unfinished look. This strategy allows construction to progress as budgets and revenue allow while providing a coherent design every step of the way. Phased construction also offers the flexibility to plan for a variety of inventory options (singles, tandems, companions, and couch) to be built at each phase contributing to a strong pre-need sales program.

When the Catholic Cemeteries of Chicago decided to build a new chapel and garden crypt complex at Holy Sepluchre Cemetery in Alsip, IL, a phased construction plan was chosen. The overall project was designed in full and the construction plan was divided into three sections or phases. The first phase will add 1,100 new crypts and 1,200 new niches. After all phases are complete, a total of 3,600 crypts and 2,400 niches will have been added. In the first phase, the grading of the site and foundation walls were completed to accommodate the future expansion, allowing for a seamless transition. Although the first phase takes on these additional upfront costs, it allows for less expensive future phases.

To accommodate the rise in cremation rates, the client was focused on traditional clientele as well as those desiring new cremation options. The single garden crypt complex was to provide for both, but it also presented the opportunity to take the Holy Sepulchre Complex a step further.

The design team found a solution that divided the building into sections. The south end of the building would honor full body burial, while the north end would honor cremated remains. The separation of the two worlds within the whole of the building was intentional. This was done to create a sense of place and new identity dedicated to cremation. A variety of cremation options will now be available in the north section that includes columbarium walls, in-ground cremains, in-ground cremation family estates and cremation memorial walls.

With multiple cremation choices designed and built into the garden crypt building, the cemetery can offer a” premium” cremation option. This prime space, allows for increased price points and in turn, an increased return on investment in the building. Memorial walls mimicking the circular form of the building also denote the in ground cremains and family estates. Memorial walls are also a great chance to incorporate an art element into the cemetery.

With a phased design plan, cemeteries can prepare for the future and comply with the current economic state. The successful integration of tradition burial and new cremation options also brings new opportunities to create premium cremation areas.

This article was published in American Cemetery, September 2012 Volume 84 No 9.


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