Local to Global
In Crookston, custom manufacturer Eickhof Columbaria is leading the world's columbarium market with its patented products.
Paul Eickhof is the first to admit that changes in technology and practices aren't exactly lightningfast in the burial industry. In fact, the industry's only major shift in the past 100 years has been an increasing preference for cremation, or burial of a person's ashes in a
columbarium. In Minnesota today, about 50 percent of people choose cremation. Eickhof expects that figure will rise to 60 or 75 percent within the next 10 to 15 years.
A columbarium is a series of small compartments, or "niches" as they're called in the industry. Each niche holds an urn containing a person's ashes and, similar to a gravestone, typically is marked with name and dates.
In the 1980s, Paul Eickhof's uncle, Jack Eickhof, saw room for improvement in construction of these final resting places. He disliked that the fasteners required to close each columbarium niche were exposed -- it seemed to diminish the beauty of a columbarium's marble front --
so he developed a concealed hardware system for them.
After an installation at his hometown church, First Presbyterian Church in Crookston, Jack Eickhof founded a company in 1986 at nephew Paul's suggestion to offer his concealed hardware columbaria to others. His patented innovations have made Eickhof Columbaria the market
leader in manufacturing of custom and preassembled columbaria.
The company holds patents on both its concealed hardware system and the high-tech material it uses to construct them, a cement fiberboard manufactured in Finland that is one-fifth the weight of poured cement.
"Our cement fiberboard gives more of a manufacturing opportunity in that it's not a poured concrete product [like typical columbaria]. It's an assembled product, which gives us a lot of advantages," says Paul Eickhof, now president of the company.
Unlike poured concrete, which requires a mold for each design, cement fiberboard is a pre-formed material that can easily be cut and assembled into any shape or size, making customization very easy. Lightweight and pre-formed, it is more convenient and economical to transport
Eickhof Columbaria boasts installations in every U.S. state, as well as Puerto Rico, Australia and Ireland. Customers are as varied as their geographical locations and include a wide spectrum of religions, churches, temples, universities and retirement communities. Each
project is unique, from installation of 4,700 niches in the mausoleum and columbarium of Our Lady of the Angels Catholic Cathedral in Los Angeles to 9,000 wall mounted and freestanding niches installed within the International Buddhist Progressive Society in Stafford, Texas. In
2007, Eickhof Columbaria created a custom outdoor columbarium on the shores of Lake Sagatagan for the alumni and monks of St. John's University and Abbey.
The company now is moving through a second round of patents that improve upon the originals. It has to keep improving its products, Eickhof says, to keep up with the recent rise in competition resulting from the increasing popularity of cremation.
"If there was one competitor five years ago, there are 10 now. We've had to take a year or two to discover that we had real competition, then another year to figure out how to compete," Eickhof says.
With its sights set on doubling sales by 2012, the company has recently hired sales representatives in Alabama, New York and Texas to facilitate more face-to-face presentations of its highly engineered products.
-- Andrea Lahouze