Mausoleum History

Have you ever wondered how the memorial industry got to where it is today? What would we find if we were to examine columbarium & mausoleum history?


What is a columbarium? The term columbarium is sometimes 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 a columbarium is a place for the respectful and usually public storage of cinerary urns (i.e., urns holding a deceased’s cremated remains). The term comes from the Latin columba (dove) and originally referred to compartmentalized housing for doves and pigeons called a dovecote. An example is found below.



“Newark Castle doocot int” by User:Dave souza – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons –


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.


In the Bet Guvrin area of Israel, several series of large caves dug into soft rock were found. There were several theories about their original use, for ritual burial, for growing pigeons to be used for ritual sacrifice, or for raising pigeons for fertilizer production. One such cave had been covered by an earthquake close to the time of its original usage, and had no signs of secondary usage. This cave had no ashes found in it, but also no pigeon droppings.


Roman columbaria were often built partly or completely underground. The Columbarium of Pomponius Hylas is a particularly fine ancient Roman example, rich in frescoes, decorations and precious mosaics.


Today’s columbaria can be either free standing units, or part of a mausoleum or another building. Some manufacturers produce columbaria that are built entirely off-site and brought to the cemetery by a large truck. Many modern crematoria have columbaria. Fine examples of these are the columbaria in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris and Golders Green Crematorium in London.


In other cases, columbaria are built into church structures. One example is the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels (Los Angeles, California), which houses a number of columbarium niches in the mausoleum built into the lower levels of the Cathedral. The construction of columbaria within churches is particularly widespread.


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 columbarium 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.


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This curved columbarium was placed at Calvary Church and is a great example of modern columbarium design.

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With benches for reflection on both sides, fluted columns, and a curved footprint, this columbarium is everything the modern memorial industry strives to be.  Innovative and personal, while offering a public place for remembering loved ones.


The word mausoleum, meanwhile, has always been directly associated with human memorials. The large, legendary tomb of ancient Persian King Mausolus  is considered the first mausoleum. Antipater of Sidon listed the Mausoleum as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. That incredibly elaborate tomb housed Mausollo’s body as well as those of a number of his family members and close associates.


The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, erected and named for him by order of his widow (who was also his sister) Artemisia.  The architects Satyrus and Pythis, and the sculptors Scopas of Paros, Leochares, Bryaxis and Timotheus, finished the work after the death of Artemisia, some of them working, it was said, purely for renown. The site and a few remains can still be seen in the Turkish town of Bodrum.



“Mausoleum of Halicarnassus 2004” by Petr Vykoukal – -. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Commons –


Much smaller scale memorial buildings patterned after the Mausollos example became very common as time progressed. The tradition became so popular, of course, that the word mausoleum resulted.


It is amazing to see how columbarium & mausoleum history has and continues to influence the memorial industry even today.