Joan Howard knows exactly where she is going when she dies: Orrington, Maine.
“I have my site, and I have my box,” Howard said recently, referring to her cemetery plot and to a simple pine coffin she has had made for herself. “I can look down and see my home.”
“Home” will be at Rainbow’s End, the nonprofit cemetery in Orrington that Howard manages. The green cemetery works to bury people in the most natural way possible with minimal effect on the land.
Bodies are not embalmed before burial here. Coffins are not placed in cement vaults. There are no fancy, watertight, metal or mahogany caskets — only simple wooden boxes that biodegrade easily to become part of the natural surroundings.
The 14-acre cemetery has a meadow and woods leading to a river. The land is dotted with a few small, flat stone markers. About four feet beneath the soil rest the five bodies that have been buried here since the volunteer-run cemetery opened about two years ago. Howard says 15 other plots have been sold.
“It’s just very green, and people who are concerned about the environment, those people, even in death, are interested in following a green path,” Howard said.
She has lived in Orrington for 44 years and “raised my children here. Why would I choose to go elsewhere? I love it here. I love the land. I’ll always be here.”
When there is a burial, the plot is hand-dug by men from a local drug and alcohol treatment center. Unlike most cemeteries in Maine, though the soil can get rock-hard with frost each winter, Rainbow’s End is available for burials 365 days a year.
“We had a burial last year on Jan. 26 or something like that. It was 26 degrees below zero. It was an incredible cold snap,” Howard said. “It took two days [to dig]. We had to clear the snow, build a charcoal fire. The diggers went away for a couple hours, then moved the charcoal and began to dig. They’d move the charcoal from one area to another until they could dig the rest of the grave.”
This method isn’t particularly innovative, Howard said.
“It’s not something we invented. It’s old-fashioned to build a fire to warm the ground to bury. What we do is not new — it’s very old and very traditional.”
As for people who prefer to be cremated, the green cemetery allows anyone to spread ashes over the land for free. The burials cost about $750 for the spot, plus a $350-$375 fee to pay the diggers.