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Staying way after school

Times Staff Writer

THE rooms in this college dorm have no electricity, no running water and ceilings that are just 11 inches high. But the residents don’t mind. They’re dead.

Draped in sky-blue marble, the honeycombed structure -- which is tucked behind a set of spooky glowing stones at Chapman University in Orange -- is designed to house the cremated ashes of alumni, faculty and pets.

The mini-cemetery is part of a small but growing trend on college campuses.

This summer, Notre Dame will unveil a pair of limestone and brick mausoleums laced with full-body crypts selling for as much as $11,000.

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And the Citadel military college in South Carolina is adding 400 urn niches to a carillon tower that holds one of the Western Hemisphere’s biggest collections of Dutch bells.

USC is also studying the idea of campus tombs for a proposed multi-faith chapel.

Think of it as continuing ed for the dead -- or the ultimate college reunion.

In today’s mobile society, some people feel more connected to their alma mater than to their hometown, said cemetery consultant Mel Malkoff, who oversees Chapman’s columbarium and is working on similar projects with other schools.

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“People look back on their college years and say, ‘Those were the best days of my life,’ ” Malkoff said. “Why not spend eternity there?”

Hoping to cash in on such sentiments, some universities don’t stop with afterlife enrollment space. They also offer custom urns -- or coffins blessed by monks.

As odd as such practices might sound, they’re rooted in the past. College graveyards were once fairly common, said historian David Sloane of USC, author of “The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History.”

In the early 1800s, before embalming became widespread, it was often impractical to ship home the body of a deceased student or professor.

IOWA State University’s 131-year-old dead zone holds about 800 corpses, mostly faculty but also two students, a night watchman and his dog.

Notre Dame’s sprawling burial ground debuted in 1843, one year after the school was founded, along with a mortuary that helped subsidize tuition costs.

By the late 20th century, many longtime college cemeteries were languishing. The University of Virginia’s 1828 graveyard ran out of room in the early 1960s, said Dr. Dearing Johns, a cardiology professor who heads the school’s cemetery committee.

School officials decided against expanding it -- until an alum who wanted to be buried on campus suggested a columbarium wall and paid for the construction with three friends.

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The first phase, with 180 urn vaults, went up in 1991 along the edge of Virginia’s old cemetery. When sales took off, spaces were added. Today, 200 more vaults, each big enough to hold four urns, are on the drawing board.

Alumni demand also spurred Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland -- home to an 1808 graveyard full of priests, professors, students and slaves -- to add 750 burial plots since 1994.

“Where else would you want to be?” said Frank Merolla, a 1963 graduate who abandoned a family plot in New York to spend eternity near a replica of the Lourdes grotto and the former home of Elizabeth Ann Seton, America’s first saint. “It’s a very peaceful, prayerful place. And it has a good view.”

About two thirds of Mount St. Mary’s new cemetery spaces are already sold.

Other colleges took notice of such success. “It’s a great way to generate money,” said columbarium chief Andrea Patenaude of the University of Richmond, which recently transformed a sliver of campus into a million-dollar serpentine wall carved with 2,900 niches priced at $3,000 each. A spider logo, depicting the school’s mascot, climbs the bamboo gate leading to the wall.

Duke University is charging $25,000 a pop to bury ashes in its new 2-acre memorial garden. Part of the motivation for Duke’s program was that people had begun scattering ashes there on the sly. The profits will help finance the school’s vast public gardens.

CALIFORNIA colleges have been slow to join the burial bandwagon. Until Chapman opened its 1,162 cremation vaults in 2005, the only noteworthy campus gravesite was a Stanford University mausoleum guarded by four marble sphinxes. But it entombs just three people: founder Leland Stanford, his wife and their son.

Chapman’s dorm for the dead, with prices ranging from $2,500 to $5,000 per two-urn chamber, was built to help fund the school’s new chapel. A meditative garden leads to the memorial, which sits behind a wall of white onyx that is illuminated from within to symbolize “the elusive separation between the living and the dead, a separation of a single breath,” according to designer Susan Narduli.

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Unlike most campus cemeteries, Chapman’s isn’t limited to alumni or school employees. Anybody without a pulse can enroll -- even pets are welcome. “If Muffy or Rover has been your lifelong companion, we will allow their ashes in your niche,” Malkoff said. Cemetery records are kept in a bombproof, fireproof storage center in upstate New York, he said.

Longtime Chapman board member Harmon Wilkinson, who died last year, was one of the first columbarium occupants. Although he was supposed to spend eternity at Rose Hills Cemetery in Whittier, his children decided the graveyard “didn’t feel right as a place

to go to think about and remember him,” daughter Karen Wilkinson recalled.

Based on his devotion to Chapman, they bought space on campus. “It certainly did cost more than Rose Hills,” she said, “but it was worth it.”

Just up the freeway, USC is contemplating a columbarium as part of a planned $20-million chapel on campus.

“It could happen,” said Rabbi Susan Laemmle, USC’s dean of religious life. “Chapman University is our model.”

Some schools offer a full line of post-baccalaureate postmortem products.

Chapman columbarium clients can place their cremated remains -- typically 8 pounds of densely packed gray dust -- in bronze urns emblazoned with the university’s logo. Price: $750.

NOTRE Dame is designing custom coffins and urns for its “Coming Home” mausoleum marketing campaign. The school has teamed with TrappistCaskets.com, a team of Iowa monks who craft burial containers out of trees grown in their 600-acre forest.

“The caskets won’t be painted blue and gold or play the fight song when you open them up,” said Chuck Lennon, executive director of Notre Dame’s alumni association. “They will be very classy and subtle,” perhaps with a school seal on one end.

Although crypt and niche spaces in Notre Dame’s mausoleums -- complete with a view of the campus’ landmark golden dome -- won’t go on sale until July, about 1,000 people have already requested information, Lennon said.

Colleges aren’t the only institutions offering alternative burial space. A German soccer team recently announced plans to open a public cemetery next

to its stadium, according to news reports.

A similar idea was floated in San Diego a decade ago, when a businessman urged the Padres baseball team to install 70,000 cremation niches in the outfield wall of its new park. Despite a potential windfall of $175 million, Padres management balked at the proposal, which would have given new meaning to the phrase “dead center.”

Churches have been more receptive. In particular, Episcopal parishes have embarked on a columbarium building binge over the last 20 years, industry experts said. As with colleges, installing crypts or niches inside a sanctuary helps raise funds and represents a return to the past, when church grounds commonly included graveyards.

Malkoff said a Southern California office building also recently toyed with the idea of adding cremation niches, but decided against the plan because employees found it creepy.

Logistical hurdles limit the odds of columbaria appearing in offbeat venues. For example, baseball and football teams regularly tear down stadiums and build new ones, a potential nightmare if graves were involved.

In contrast, colleges rarely relocate.

“Very few institutions in society last longer than a university,” said historian Sloane. In that sense, he said, they make ideal cemeteries.

roy.rivenburg@latimes.com


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