From simple do-it-yourself in-home funerals to elaborate and highly personalized pyrotechnic displays, send-offs for the dearly departed are no longer one-size-fits-all affairs.
“I think this all part of the baby boomers aging,” said Chuck Lakin, a home-funeral director and casket maker in Waterville who works with online afterlife information clearinghouse Last Things. “Thirty years ago they were into home births to take control over that life experience and now, 30 to 40 years later, they want to take control of the other end of it.”
Over the past decade Lakin said he has seen a growing number of people in Maine opting for funerals in their homes instead of the more formal and orchestrated ceremonies in established funeral parlors.
“There’s no way to tell how many people are actually doing this,” he said. “But in 2011 there were enough people interested in it nationwide that the National Home Funeral Association was formed, and today they are up to 1,000 members.”
Traditional funeral directors play an important role in afterlife care, Foley said, but many people now want to be more involved in what happens to their dearly departed.
“A funeral director comes in and whisks the body away, and then you see it again for a few hours at the wake before it goes into the ground,” he said. “When you talk to anyone who’s done a home funeral, they talk about the personal experience. You hear time and again from people who have taken an active part in after-death care of a loved one how emotionally satisfying they found it.”
Once the eulogies are over and the final goodbyes said, Maine residents have a number of options when it comes to deciding a final resting place.
For the ultimate private and permanent alternative, Maine statutes allow landowners to create their own family cemeteries on plots of land no larger than one-quarter acre in size. No state license is needed to create a family burial ground, but its existence does need to be recorded at the municipal and county levels as part of the property deed. The borders of the lot also must clearly be marked or enclosed by a fence.
Once created, according to state statute, it remains an official cemetery forever, even if the land around it is sold by its developer.
Going green is another option, according to Lakin.
“There’s a real interest in the green funerals,” Lakin said. “People just need the biodegradable coffins, and those can be made of pine, wicker or even papier-mache or a shroud.”
“The keyword is biodegradable,” Joyce Foley, of Cedar Brook Burial Ground in Limington, said. “It’s really like any other cemetery, only there is no embalming and no cement vaults.”
Over time, the bodies naturally decompose in the ground, free of chemicals or other toxic materials associated with the embalming process.
In perhaps the ultimate back-to-the-land move, human remains may be placed in biodegradable containers made of natural components such as coconut shells, peat and cellulose, which over time become part of the soil.
A company in Italy has developed special organic, biodegradable “pods” that turn a body into nutrients for a tree that grows out of the container.
If someone decides against burial, there are other options in Maine, including the most common, cremation, in which bodies are placed in a 2,000-degree oven for two hours.
“At the end of that, you are reduced to bone fragments — the minerals of the body,” Lakin said. “The state requires every crematorium to reduce those fragments down to a sand-like texture — what people often call the ashes.”
An alternative to “flame” cremation in Maine, according to Lakin, is alkaline hydrolysis, in which a strong solution of pH 12 heated to 350-degrees reduces human remains to a chemical slurry and easily powdered bones, often referred to as ash. The slurry is disposed in a state-approved location and the “ash” returned to family members. So far the only facility in Maine setup for alkaline hydrolysis is Maine Coast Crematory in Searsport.
Families or friends often want to scatter those ashes in significant locations. By and large, there are no legal restrictions in Maine as to where that can be done, but people are encouraged to be discrete and to check with landowners or officials. In Acadia National Park, for example, a permit is required to disperse human ashes, but there is no fee associated with it.
Of course, for those with a flare for the dramatic, there are other options offered from out-of-state businesses. Companies such as LifeGem or Cremation Solutions will compress the carbon components of human ashes into diamond-like gems. A company called And Vinyl in the United Kingdom will press an actual record album by mixing the ashes into the raw vinyl used to make the disc.
According to the company’s website, the album can be a recording of a favorite song, musical selection or even the reading of the deceased’s last will and testament.
A number of companies, including Heavens Above Fireworks, Ashes to Ashes and Angels Flight will incorporate human ashes into fireworks to create personalized pyrotechnics’ displays.
Lakin said he’s not heard of anyone in Maine going quite that far, but did say there are people working to change some state laws to open the doors for more after death options closer to home.
“There has been a group in Colorado for years doing ‘open air’ cremations,” he said. “The body is laid in an open pit designed for cremations where it is placed on a grate with fir or cedar bows laid over it [and] there is a group in Maine starting the process to get it legalized to do here.”
There are others, Lakin said, who would like to see “human composting” in Maine, where it is already legal to compost large animals.
With traditional funerals and cemetery interments costing up to $12,000 in Maine, Lakin said it’s understandable more and more people are looking for smaller and less-expensive alternatives.
At Cedar Brook, for example Foley said the cost of a burial site starts at $600 for a single plot and rises to $1,600 for a double plot of ground, where she does her best to accommodate any and all requests.
“I have spoken to one man who wants to be buried a mushroom suit he found in California. The idea is the spores are in the suit wrapped around the body and will grow over time,” she said. “You really do meet the most interesting people doing this.”