UNITY, Maine — Three years ago, Nancy Rosalie’s dear friend was dying and was unsure of what she wanted to have happen to her body after she died.
The woman, a farmer, originally wanted to be cremated but did some research and decided that option ultimately wasn’t for her.
“Some of us knew that home burials were possible, so I suggested it to her,” Rosalie of Unity said. “‘You know, you can be buried on your farm.’ She said she would like that.”
And so that is what happened. The woman died, and her friends made her a simple pine coffin and buried her in it in a patch of land on the farm.
“It was so meaningful and personal,” Rosalie said of the burial. “One of the most meaningful parts was that after placing the coffin in the grave, we passed shovels around. There was something rather cathartic about that that I think helped people in the grieving process and also helped them gain better perspective on the cycle of death and life.”
Green, or natural, burials such as that one simply make sense to the Unity homesteader and to a growing number of other people in Maine and elsewhere. In the Pine Tree State, there are two privately run “green” cemeteries: the Rainbow’s End Natural Cemetery in Orrington, overlooking the Penobscot River, and Cedar Brook Burial Ground, set amid the forests of Limington.
Now a couple of Waldo County women are working to locate a place for a green cemetery in their area, and several people in Belfast are wondering whether their city would be a good place for the state’s first municipally run green cemetery. Alison Rector of Monroe and Helen Sahadi of Thorndike said they want to make the option of green burials available to more people.
“Bury me the old fashioned way,” Sahadi, who runs Heavenly Socks yarn in Belfast, said. “That’s exactly what a lot of people would like.”
According to the Green Burial Council, the California-based nonprofit organization working to encourage environmentally sustainable death care, green burials were common practice long ago but the modern green burial movement is relatively new. A green burial is one that incorporates environmentally sustainable practices, doesn’t try to inhibit decomposition and doesn’t introduce toxic elements into the environment.
Such burials would prohibit the use of an outer burial container or vault, prohibit toxic chemicals used in embalming and include any burial container made of a sustainable material, such as paper, fabric or wood. They also can be much less expensive than a traditional funeral, which has an average cost of $7,000, Rector said.
“It just seems like a much more respectful way of going about things,” Rosalie, a member of the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Maine, said. “I like the idea of a green cemetery. It allows that important recycling of nutrients. It’s also a place set aside for people to reflect on those cycles, whereas my friend’s burial ground is not very accessible. I think that rather than having a lot of little home burial plots on every farm, [it would be better] to consolidate them into a cemetery that is set aside and can be a place for people to reflect on their loved ones and their life and their death and also a place that is beautiful and not detrimental to the earth, as other cemeteries are.”
Sahadi did a survey of all the cemeteries in Waldo County that have available plots. She found that while several communities said there was no possibility of a green cemetery in their towns, officials in Belfast and Monroe said they would consider it.
“People brought the idea of green cemeteries to me right after I was elected to the Belfast City Council [in Nov. 2014],” Belfast City Councilor Neal Harkness said. “There’s all these [burial] alternatives now. I think the days of only traditional cemeteries may be coming to an end, and here’s another alternative. I’m very supportive.”
Councilors talked about the idea — though took no action on it — at a regular meeting in mid-December. Cemetery Superintendent Steve Boguen told city officials then that there is not adequate room for a green cemetery at any of Belfast’s existing cemeteries. Several councilors wondered whether Belfast may be able to use a different piece of city-owned land for such a cemetery. Harkness also wondered whether a private landowner may decide to use his or her own property for a green cemetery as a commercial enterprise. Boguen also told the council that burial trends in Belfast have changed a lot in recent decades. The council has asked for more information and is expected to revisit the topic in the future.
“We’re at approximately 90 percent cremations now,” he said. “It used to be 90 percent the other way when I started in 1979, 1980.”
Belfast City Councilor Mike Hurley told the BDN he expects the aging of the baby boomer generation to change funeral practices even more.
“People have a right to do what they want to do, and probably a significant portion of people would want to do something like this,” he said. “I think for sure this is going to be something on our radar. We’ll just keep working on it.”
Rector, an active volunteer with the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Maine, said she has started to check out natural burial areas while traveling. Some look like meadows and others have a more traditional appearance, including simple stone markers. She feels a green cemetery would fit right in for Waldo County.
“In Waldo County, we have a fair number of back-to-the-landers and people who are growing their own food,” she said. “For them, it’s not such a weird thought. I think it would be wonderful for Waldo County to be a leader in this. If Belfast or one of the other towns decided to do this, it would be the first municipal green cemetery in the state.”