Gate looking into the garden – John Penberthy
Gate looking into the garden of Berkeley’s columbarium at Northbrae Community Church. Photo: John Penberthy
Gate looking into the garden of Berkeley’s columbarium at Northbrae Community Church. Photo: John Penberthy

By Karen Queen

Berkeley now has its first and only columbarium. It is located at the far end of a walled meditation garden in back of Northbrae Community Church. Both are open to the public.

Why a columbarium? In 2004, Reverend Ron Sebring proposed an idea to honor Native American spirituality to the Northbrae congregation. The chapel’s stained-glass windows honor major religions of the world but not the spirituality and culture of indigenous people. Reverend Sebring had a deep, personal interest in Native American spirituality. He proposed a medicine wheel, also known as a sacred hoop, as an appropriate symbol and sketched a drawing of how one would look when placed on the ground behind the chapel.

Hoop – Carol Coon
The sacred hoop. Photo: Carol Coon

Over the next ten years, the idea grew into formal plans for a meditation garden that would honor not only all indigenous people, but specifically the earliest known inhabitants of the land where Northbrae is located. These were the Huchiun people.

As a result, native plants used by the Huchiun were planted throughout the garden. Everything was constructed in a circular way to represent the circular philosophy of life common to Native Americans. Wood from the cypress tree that was cut down to make room for the garden was used to construct a gate and a bench. A medicine wheel was placed on the ground just as Reverend Sebring had envisioned. It is named the Sacred Hoop Garden for the circle of stones that symbolize the concept of “the never-ending cycle of life.”

 Garden/wall – John Penberthy Columbarium – Carol Coon
The curved stone bench in the Sacred Hoop Garden. Photo: John Penberthy
The curved stone bench in the Sacred Hoop Garden. Photo: John Penberthy

The garden is intended to be a special, spiritual place, a place of refuge, a place to remember those who came before us. People who want to experience a peaceful, meditative space are welcome to visit. The garden was dedicated on March 23, 2014.

What about the columbarium? In order to help pay for this ambitious project, a small columbarium was proposed for the far corner of the garden and a stone wall for memorial plaques. The Berkeley ordinances and permit requirements were studied and it was found that a columbarium was not allowed in the city. Since sales of the columbarium niches were the only way to finance the garden, a two-year effort was started to change the ordinance. Finally, on March 9, 2010, the Berkeley City Council passed an ordinance allowing a limited number of columbarium niches as an “accessory use” on non-residential property, including churches, within the city.

 Columbarium – Carol Coon
Columbarium – Carol Coon

People who love Berkeley can now have their final resting place be in Berkeley. Northbrae’s broad philosophy of honor and respect for all cultures and faiths lends itself to being the home of a columbarium that is open to everyone. Visitors to the columbarium may meditate or simply sit on the curved, stone bench that faces the columbarium for moments of remembrance.

The garden is entered through a gate off the church parking lot, next to a dawn redwood. The entire area is enclosed by a six-foot stone wall made from rock that matches the walls of the church.

Local architect Howard McNenny designed the garden. Landscape architect Sue Oda selected the plants, and Spencer Wolfe constructed the garden and columbarium.

The garden and columbarium are open during church office hours and by appointment.

Northbrae Community Church is located at 941 The Alameda, Berkeley. The phone number is 510-526-3805. Further information is available at the Northbrae Columbarium website.

Karen Queen is a Berkeley native and long-time member of Northbrae Community Church.

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