Jim and Linda Help Construct a Columbarium
Nestled among the hills of the driftless area and along the Chippewa River, St. Mary’s Assumption in Durand has been the spiritual home for some 80 years to the Bauer family. For Jim and Linda Bauer, this parish has been the eucharistic community in which they’ve experienced the significant milestones of life: baptisms, first Communions, their wedding 47 years ago and the funerals and burials of their parents. These last milestones led to substantial conversations among the family concerning death.
“When you start approaching 70, sitting around a bonfire, some profound subjects come up,” Jim Bauer remarked. “You start thinking about the afterlife.”
Next to the warmth and intimacy of a flickering fire, Jim and Linda explored the realities of aging and death and the option of cremation. “Linda always considered cremation,” said Jim. Her parents chose to be cremated and buried in St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery. Jim was amenable to cremation but was conflicted when considering an in-ground burial. “The columbarium concept arose when we first researched different options on how to be buried above ground. I never liked the thought, whether being buried or cremated, of being placed in the ground. These thoughts and my discussions with Linda sparked the idea of exploring burial options.”
Through the research that followed, the Bauers discovered what is known as a columbarium. It’s a sepulchral vault with recesses in the wall where one places a loved one’s cremated remains. The Bauers immersed themselves in the specifics of these structures as an alternative to in-ground burial, as well as the Church’s guidance concerning the treatment
of cremated remains.
“I was probably one of those people who would have liked to cast some of my ashes in the river,” Jim admitted with a grin. “But, I researched Catholic beliefs and teachings and learned that we approve and accept cremation. It is important, though, that one buries or places the ashes in a reverential site.”
Confusion regarding cremation persists for many Catholics today, likely because the Church forbade it for centuries. In the early days of Christianity, as a sign of disdain and to mock the belief in the resurrection of the body, pagans would steal the buried bodies of Christians and set them ablaze. As the culture changed, however, the Church altered her stance on this practice. Piam et Constantem, issued in 1963, states that those choosing cremation can receive sacramental and funeral rites. Additionally, as Jim later learned, the Church dictated that remains be treated with the utmost dignity, either being buried or placed in a reverential space.
As Jim and Linda’s conversations matured from fireside musings to studied plans informed by Church teaching, they found that a columbarium could meet their desires and Catholic doctrine. They didn’t come to this conclusion alone. Steve and Jan Spindler, Jim’s brother-in-law and sister, were among those who joined the Bauers in initial discussions about death and the concept of a columbarium. The Spindlers even took to the road, visiting many cemeteries to learn what they had to offer.
“I can’t drive through a community now without checking out their cemetery,” laughed Jan.
Providentially, Steve and Jan were in the midst of a parish project that made them all the more interested in the idea of introducing a columbarium to St. Mary’s Parish. “We’ve been clearing out the cemetery records for two years,” Jan noted. “It’s a major project, so we spent a lot of time in the cemetery. The two projects meshed beautifully together.”
Steve, a member of the parish cemetery committee, realized that the developed space for in-ground burial was shrinking. “The church owns a considerable amount of land that could be used for in-ground burials, but doing that would require trees to be cut, earth moved and grass seeded,” added Steve. “There were associated costs we needed to consider. So, when the columbarium idea came up, it really was quite attractive.”
The group also spoke with Jeff Reinhart, the director of Catholic Cemeteries for the Diocese of La Crosse. He was interested in columbariums for remarkably similar reasons as the Bauers and Spindlers: limited La Crosse burial space and a sharp increase in Catholic cremations. He encouraged them to provide this option for their parish family and guided them on how to get a project of this nature approved by the bishop.
Generosity and Teaching
They consolidated the wealth of information they gathered and then considered how this project could meet the needs of the entire parish. In doing so, the need for columbariums became clear. They also saw the benefit and convenience of providing an altar to celebrate Mass for families whose loved ones choose cremation. After finalizing their plans, they presented them to St. Mary’s cemetery committee and their pastor, Father Emmanuel Asamoah-Bekoe. The plans were met with open arms.
Father Emmanuel was grateful for Jim and Linda’s generosity in funding the project and for thinking beyond the needs of their immediate family. “We all want a place where family and friends can visit and pray after we have died. This allows them to sit and pray an Our Father or Hail Mary for you,” explains Father Emmanuel. He makes a point to catechize those questioning the necessity of burial at the cemetery, whether in-ground or in a columbarium.
Father Emmanuel reassures those who may be uncertain about the sacredness of in-ground burial, like Jim was, “Having columbariums is an answer to what parishioners in that position desire. They can still be in a columbarium and in a very sacred, reverential, dignified place where we can come and pray for them.”
One marvels at the outpouring of generosity involved in all of the forethought, research, time and funds that went into an endeavor such as this one. Jeff recognizes that individual parishioners usually make these ideas a reality: “A family that wants this are the ones that push for it. They’re the ones who do the footwork to get it done.”
The Bauers enjoyed the footwork and explained their motivation and commitment, saying, “I feel that God blessed us abundantly,” says Jim. “We want to be sure we share what we have received.”
Nearly complete, the columbariums are located in the upper cemetery at St. Mary’s Assumption Parish and overlook the beautiful church grounds. Jim and Linda reflect on the serene setting and feel a tremendous sense of gratitude that this new option is available to all parishioners of their tri-parish community.
As the Holy Spirit Leads
The support of so many—family, the Spindlers (who donated the statue between the columbariums), the cemetery committee and Father Emmanuel—ultimately made the idea initially developed in those early fireside discussions possible.
Jeff supports this endeavor and encourages individuals and parishes interested in a columbarium to speak with their fellow parishioners and their pastor.
The Bauers, Spindlers and the St. Mary’s parish family are joyously following where the Holy Spirit leads them. Alight with hope and possibility, they were elated when the columbarium was formally blessed after Mass on Oct. 1.
The Bauers shared that they would like to thank everyone who contributed in any fashion to making this reverential site a reality.
Story by Alexis Pomietlo
Published in the November/December 2023 issue of Catholic Life Magazine
Main photo: (L-R) Jim and Linda Bauer, Father Emmanuel, Father Zweber and Jan and Steve Spindler stand before one of the recently completed columbariums.