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Church Burial Rights Gain Support in Berkeley

By Richard Brenneman
Wednesday December 17, 2008 - 07:15:00 PM

Forget all that stuff about “godless Berkeley.” 

Truth be told, only the churched will be interred here, if new regulations passed last week by Berkeley’s Planning Commission are approved by the City Council, likely in early February. 

Commissioners approved language for a new ordinance to allow ashes of cremated corpses—“cremains” in the trade language mocked by the late Jessica Mitford, whose ashes couldn’t have been kept in Berkeley—to stay in the city, but only in columbaria on property maintained for religious assembly. 

Columbarium is a term of Latin origin, a word for dovecote, which the modern structure resembles in the multitude of niches used to house the encased ashes of the departed. 

Berkeley churches—but not non-churches—would be able have them, thanks to City Councilmember Laurie Capi-telli, who requested the action on behalf of his constituents at Northbrae Community Church, which is located at 941 The Alameda. 

The church, he wrote to colleagues in September, “is expanding their formal garden area north of the sanctuary and dedicating it to Native American spirituality. They also want to include a small columbarium for the remains of parishioners and community members.” 

Since ashes can’t be stored in Berkeley under existing law, Capitelli asked that the city change its zoning ordinance to allow columbarium construction so long as it’s “incidental” to “Religious Assembly Use” and contains no more than 400 niches and occupies no more than 5 percent of the church’s turf. 

Keeping the size small allows Berkeley’s columbaria to slip through the city’s business and zoning codes as an accessory structure, a term more commonly applied to garages and gardening sheds.  

In other words, unless you’re happy to let your mortal remains repose on sacred soil, they have to be stored elsewhere. 

Berkeley banned columbaria along with crematoria, cemeteries and crypts around the same time San Francisco evicted its dead to Colma due to city public health and odor concerns. 

Church member Bob Davis, a former zoning officer, said cremation is the most environmentally friendly manner of handling human remains. “I’m rapidly approaching the final exit, and I’m looking for a quick decision,” he told commissioners. 

The church’s proposal called for 500 niches, which Davis said “would probably take 100 years or so to fill,” concealed behind a six-foot fence and occupying about one percent of the church’s lot. 

City staff proposed a 400-niche maximum but expanded potential land area to five percent. 

Gene Poschman, the only commissioner to abstain when it came time to vote, said he was concerned that staff had proposed allowing columbaria under the city’s accessory structure ordinance, which he described as one of the city’s most problematic code sections. 

What if the church sells the property? What happens to the ashes then? “It might be Bekins time,” he quipped, referring to the van and storage firm.  

Was the site reserved only for church members? he asked. 

Primarily, Davis said. 

“We are a community church,” said Northbrae treasurer John Oldham. “You don’t have to be a member to go to church,” he said, and the congregation wasn’t planning on a rule to bar non-members.  

Patti Dacey, the only commissioner to oppose the new regulation, said she didn’t have any problems with columbaria in Berkeley—just their restriction to religious assembly sites. 

“It seems a little strange to me that only people who are churched can have their ashes in Berkeley,” she said. “That does seem to me to be a problem.” 

And it’s also a problem for David Silverman, the national spokesperson of the American Atheists. The organization has fought legal battles for the rights of the godless for the last 45 years. 

“There are lots of atheists in Berkeley, and now they have fewer rights than people who believe in an invisible man in the sky,” he said. “This is essentially a two-class system, with religious people obeying one set of laws and non-religious people another.” 

And it’s not just atheists who wouldn’t want to be buried on church property. “Neither do pagans or Jews or Moslems,” he said. 

Silverman said the new Berkeley regulations were part of a disturbing trend in federal and local regulations granting churches expanded rights unavailable to the churchless. 

In Southern California, the Cornerstone Community Church in Simi Valley is challenging a Ventura County Planning Commission veto of its plans to build a seven-building complex on land the county has set aside for open space. 

The church contends that the Religious Land Use and Institutional Persons Act passed by Congress in 2000 preempts state and local land-use regulations, including the county ordinance barring church construction in dedicated open space. 

Silverman said the Mormon church has used the law to build “huge monstrosities” in residential neighborhoods, “because they like their churches to really stick out."