For those who believe in a biblical paradise, death can be a passage to a perfect afterlife. But there is now a place on Earth, a place of natural beauty and human spirit, where one's physical remains can find a niche, bracketed by the shimmering river on one side, an azalea-filled ravine on the other.
A columbarium is a place where cremation urns are interred. Its name is derived from the Latin for dove (columba) and refers to the compartmentalized housing, or dovecote, in which the birds were kept.
Mepkin Abbey, the Cistercian monastery on the banks of the upper Cooper River in Berkeley County, is dedicating its new columbarium next month. Already, the abbey has cemeteries that contain the remains of those with a connection to the land.
But a couple of years ago, a plan was hatched to make Mepkin a homecoming destination for anyone interested in inurnment behind a simple granite facade on the gracious grounds of the Moncks Corner abbey. Religious affiliation is irrelevant, though the monks hope the opportunity will be embraced by those who honor what they do and how they live, and respect their commitment to nature.
On June 17, the landscaping will be done, the benches installed, the winding stone-and-brick path laid, the wall of niches complete. The columbarium, designed by Susan Conant of Charleston, is meant to blend into the limestone bluff on which it sits.
“You won't know it's here unless you know it's here,” said abbey spokeswoman Mary Jeffcoat.
The monks have been working with James Rozier, former Berkeley County supervisor, and his business partner, Robbie Metts, to sell the niches — 120 doubles and 71 singles for $4,500 and $3,000, respectively.
Already, nearly half are claimed and $300,000 raised, providing the monks with an important new revenue stream. The oyster mushroom business is going well, the Rev. Guerric Heckel said, but it's not as lucrative as the defunct egg production enterprise was.
Inquiries are made of the monks, and Heckel will contact Rozier to pass along customer information.
“Jim,” he will say, “people are just dying to see you.”
Don't think monks have no sense of humor.
In the search for revenue-generating projects, the Trappists would discuss this or that idea. Then someone mentioned death and cemeteries, which led to a proposal to build the columbarium.
Heckel called it “thinking out of the box.”
Honoring the spirits
The monks long have been stewards of the dead and have found ways to honor those who have passed on.
The Laurens family can be found in a small, enclosed gravesite atop a bluff overlooking a ravine, directly across from the new, curving columbarium. Henry Laurens bought the property in 1762 and built his home there, naming his purchase Mepkin Plantation.
Enslaved Africans who worked on the plantation and in the rice fields also died on the plantation and were buried there. Various archaeological discoveries have demonstrated that Native Americans once occupied the area's forests and riverbanks.
Years later, in 1936, magazine publisher Henry Luce acquired the property. He and his second wife, writer Clare Boothe Luce, donated it in 1949 to the Trappists at Gesthemani Abbey in Kentucky, who soon established a new monastery. The Luces are buried at Mepkin.
In the years since, monks have worked, prayed, worshipped, made music and died at the abbey.
The Tower of the Seven Spirits rings out each day calling monks to prayer and reminding the men of these ancestral inhabitants of the land, including those interred in the secular cemetery, and those who had nowhere else to go.
“When this land bears our sweat and our tears, our spirits become one with all those who've gone before us,” Heckel said. “These spirits call the monks to prayer. And now a new set of spirits will add volume to the call.”
The ashes of the dead that reside in the columbarium represent a soul that becomes an active part of the life of the monastery, he said.
Over the years, some visitors to Mepkin Abbey have made inquiries about burial; they fall in love with the beauty, peace and contemplative quiet. “It occurred to us that one of the ways we could accommodate these requests while preserving the natural setting is a columbarium,” Heckel said. “There is something about the place itself they find very peaceful and attractive, and they are excited by the possibility of making it their final resting place.”
Now the monks are toying with the idea of a public, interfaith Day of the Dead ceremony to be held on All Saints Day in November.
The plain, gray granite facade of each niche will be engraved with a uniform style and phrasing, Heckel said. No religious symbols will be used. No monuments can be installed. No specialized engraving will be allowed.
Typically, funerals will be held somewhere else; only the committal will be conducted at Mepkin, and the monks can be available to perform that modest ceremony, Heckel said.
Catholics who are cremated must have their ashes inurned. But non-Catholics don't have to abide by that rule, so the monks are considering the development of a scatter garden near the columbarium.
Rozier said the structure is designed to expand. It can curl along the path, into the ravine and along the top of the opposite bluff if demand is high enough. It can continue to provide the abbey with income for decades, he said.
Mostly, those with some familiarity of Mepkin Abbey so far have purchased niches, Rozier said. But a few out-of-towners have heard about the columbarium and made commitments. One man from Colorado liked the idea so much, he bought a spot blind. After the transaction was completed, he told Rozier he'd like to fly in for a visit.
“I'll meet you at the airport,” Rozier replied.
“What's the nearest airport?” the man wanted to know.
Several buyers apparently have been waiting for the right opportunity. They have lived with the ashes of their loved ones on the mantel of the living room for years, reluctant to part with the remains, Rozier said.
But that has changed. Mepkin's setting and the elegant, integrated design of the columbarium have shown them a new possibility.
“It's easier to let go here,” Rozier said.
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/aparkerwriter.