Willow Row Barrow Finds Inspiration in Old Burial Techniques

The columbarium is the first stone barrow built in Cambridgeshire in 3,500 years
The interior of Willow Row Barrow, featuring a round, high stone ceiling with candles placed throughout the building

Credit: sacredstones.co.uk

Columbariums are usually simple, utilitarian spaces, designed solely for the purpose of storing the ashes of those who have died. Often part of a funeral home or a church, they rarely provide space for family and friends to gather and remember their loved one or celebrate their life.

Recently, however, the U.K. design firm Sacred Stones, Ltd. decided to change that paradigm. Inspired by the ancient stone barrows scattered throughout the countryside, they decided to create an alternative to the status quo. The Willow Row Barrow in Cambridgeshire is the outcome of that decision — a beautiful, hand-crafted, stone columbarium that offers a comforting space to families while also connecting them to their prehistoric roots. 

Wall at Willow Row Barrow Cremation Niches

Credit: francisstonedesign.co.uk

An Ancient Tradition

Although the concept of a “beautiful columbarium” is relatively new to Western nations, it’s not an entirely foreign concept. In fact, nearly 3,500 years ago, barrows just like Willow Row Barrow were scattered throughout the Cambridgeshire region. These barrows (mounds of earth and rock that hold a person’s remains) were part of a sacred funeral tradition for people living in the area.

Heart cut in stone at willow row barrow cremation niche

Credit: francisstonedesign.co.uk

In ancient times, a dead loved one would be burned on a pyre. Then their family, friends and members of the community would build up a mound of earth, usually somewhere with religious or personal significance for the person who died. They would put the ashes and personal effects inside of the mound. Some barrows were small, containing the remains of only one family. Others were massive, holding remains from the entire community.

Stonework was also an important component of some of these more elaborate barrows. Stones formed the base of the barrow, the tunnel walls and the niches that held the ashes. The sturdy stone foundation helped the mound retain its shape over the centuries.

Creating Sacred Space

Velvet bag of cremation ashes at willow row barrow

Credit: sacredstones.co.uk

Willow Row Barrow copies brick-for-brick what these old barrows looked like, right down to the dirt-covered roof. You’ll see intricate stonework on the outside, with long tunnels inside that house urns. The only modern touches are relatively small, such as lighting and precisely-carved openings in the walls for urns to fit snugly inside.

This is perhaps what sets Willow Row Barrow apart from many other modern columbariums. The space is completely secular, yet it still retains a sacred, hushed atmosphere. The stonework looks like something out of a history book, and the space holds hundreds of candles. The timeless ethos transports us back in time, out of our modern head space and into an environment we’ve never seen or experienced firsthand.

In this sense, Willow Row Barrow is a modern answer to the question, “How can we make burial spaces feel sacred without including religious images?” Although completely secular, it is still a place where families can feel connected to cultural traditions that are thousands of years old.

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