Jeff Reynolds, owner of Custom Stonescaping, never imagined he would be in the business of final resting places. “I started Custom Stonescaping about 25 years ago,” he says. His typical client asks for patios, pergolas and decks. Usually they are young homeowners wanting to enhance their backyards.
After an encounter at a home and garden show several years ago, Reynolds found a new clientele base – the dead.
“(A priest) approached me about these columbariums at a home and garden show,” he says. “I never heard of them. I didn’t have experience with them.”
So, Reynolds and his team went to work researching. They found that churches and cemeteries were running out of land to build more burial plots and about 60 percent of people don’t want full-body burials anymore.
Columbariums offer an alternative to full-body burial. Traditional columbariums function as a place to store an urn after a body had been cremated. Aesthetically, they usually look like mausoleums.
A fresh look.
Reynolds says there has been a shift away from traditional mausoleums – a vertical wall with little boxes. “A lot of churches don’t like that,” he says.
So, Reynolds set out to design a type of columbarium that would look less solemn and offer a space for reflection. With the help of his team, Reynolds came up with a design for a garden surrounded by stone niches. The niches are built to hold urns and can even act as a bench to sit on.
“What we're doing is creating niches and we're creating a natural garden that most people look at it. They don't even realize that it’s a columbarium. It looks like a bench that surrounds a big, natural garden,” he says.
Reynolds had no experience with this type of project beforehand, so in order to get the measurements and logistics ironed out, he had to spend more time researching.
“We did a lot of research, we learned a lot about it, but the urns are anything from basically a plastic box all the way to ones that are made of salt that decompose,” he says. “There are some that are specialty wood, almost like a small little coffin.”
Using the dimensions for a standard size urn, he’s able to translate that into the scope of a project.
“What we've decided is that the majority of the niches will accommodate the standard size. But because we put natural boulders in between, inevitably we have some oversize or odd shape size niches and those are nice,” Reynolds says. He uses the oversized niches to house the more specialty style of urns or even house two urns side by side if that’s what the plot owner requests.
Pricing it out.
For the clients of Columbarium Gardens, which are mostly churches, the different style of columbariums offers room for a profit.
“There’s a 100-niche minimum,” Reynolds says. “Basically, that's about the smallest you can do to have a significant enough of a project where it feels right.”
The gardens have a double row of niches, and Reynolds markets the size of the columbariums to his clients as a way to get more revenue generation from them. With the 100-niche minimum, the churches have enough spaces to sell.
In some cases, to keep the integrity of the design, Reynolds ends up with more niches in a garden than he originally planned. He uses natural stone, and not all pieces are perfect, so sometimes the design allows for more. In these cases, the client gets the bonus niches, and Reynolds doesn’t lose out on profit.
While he operates Columbarium Gardens with his Custom Stonescaping staff and assets, Reynolds wanted to create differentiation between the two companies because of how specific the clients are for the columbarium business.
“Let's say somebody representing a church or a retirement community or whatever it is, they're not looking (for) traditional patios and walkways,” he says. “They are focusing more on the columbarium, both the formal ones and the more rustic ones.”
Creating a website and company for Columbarium Gardens allows clients to find exactly what they are looking for, rather than sifting through photos and services of patios and other projects. The venture into columbariums also introduced labyrinth design and installation to Reynolds.
“What happens is the people that are interested in cremains typically are the ones that are also dealing with people that are 70 years, 80 years, 90 years old and are in that mode in their lives,” he says. “They are thinking about reflection, thinking about family members.”
Reynolds describes the labyrinths as giant patterns on the ground that are usually outlined with different stones where people can go walk in a somewhat circular maze. “It forces you to sort of slow down and watch where your feet are and literally just get your mind right to be able to think,” he says.
Working on church and cemetery grounds is different than working on a homeowner’s backyard, Reynolds says.
“The materials are very similar because we use natural stone primarily on everything we do now,” he says. “But there is a different feel when you’re working on a church ground or sacred ground.”
The work can be slower because crews have to pay attention to what is around them.
“You’ve got to be very aware of every tree and every bush because if that was planted 30 years ago by a family, it has a lot more meaning. The typical person, they move into a house, they rip out all the plants, put in the patio, they don’t care,” Reynolds says. But, when working on cemetery grounds, workers need to be much more cautious and careful.
Typically, Custom Stonescaping services areas within an hour of its office in Virginia, but Reynolds has had requests far beyond that for his columbarium gardens and labyrinths.
“We literally took the show on the road and went down to southern Maryland over the winter,” he says. “So a lot of times with the churches, I like to do the jobs in the dead of winter. We’re slower with the residential and I can give the church a better price.”
Reynolds says he’s the only business around that builds the columbarium gardens. He’s received multiple requests from prospective clients in other states to do jobs. “These are a win-win-win kind of thing,” he says. “The guys really enjoy building them and they feel a sense of pride. It’s one thing to build a patio for someone to grill a steak. It’s another thing to build something at a church that’s built special.”