Word of the Week: Columbarium

You may have seen, or at least heard of, a columbarium. It's not an unusual structure to see at a cemetery or built into a church: A series of small niches, it's intended to hold a number of cremation urns.

What's interesting about the columbarium from a word-of-the-week perspective is the surprising origin of the word. The Latin root columb doesn't mean "niche" or "urn" or anything else like that. It means "dove" or "pigeon," and the earliest columbaria were named for how similar they looked to the multichambered nesting boxes – known as dovecotes or columbaries – used by those who bred the birds.

There may well be a columbarium in one of your local cemeteries, but if not, you can visit a famous one while traveling. The San Francisco Columbarium is a beautifully constructed building with an impressive copper dome and houses local notables including the Folgers – of coffee fame. Some columbaria at Arlington National Cemetery hold the remains of those who served our country. Overseas, the columbaria of Rome date back to the first centuries C.E., and you can visit them in a variety of ways, including dining at the Hostaria Antica Roma, a restaurant built around an ancient columbarium.