It might not seem like the goals of a land conservation organization would align with the business of burying dead bodies. But a local land trust may have the model for future cemeteries as the demand for green burials continues to grow.
Burials at green cemeteries use more environmentally friendly practices than traditional methods, such as eliminating concrete vaults, skipping embalming and burying bodies in a biodegradable shroud or unvarnished casket. Conservation cemeteries, which are certified by the Green Burial Council, take that eco-consciousness one step further by meeting additional requirements about the amount of land preserved and the way it is managed.
The Baldwin Hill Conservation Cemetery officially opened in July 2021, but the project has been percolating for years. Theresa Kerchner, executive director of the Kennebec Land Trust and Baldwin Hill Conservation Cemetery, said she first read about conservation cemeteries in a 2007 issue of Saving Land, an industry magazine for land trusts.
“It stayed on my desk for four or five years,” Kerchner said. “There are tremendous climate change benefits associated with green burials.”
At that point, the Kennebec Land Trust didn’t have the funds to make the conservation cemetery a reality. Then, in 2016, a summer intern wrote about the potential to do green burials on Kennebec Land Trust property. Kerchner included their work in a newsletter to land trust supporters, and before she knew it, a donor wanted to fund the project.
The Kennebec Land Trust established the Baldwin Hill Conservation Cemetery Corp., a nonprofit that oversees the finances and maintenance of the cemetery. Unlike other land conservation organizations around the country, which manage their own onsite funerals, the burials at Baldwin Hill will be conducted by local contractors and funeral homes.
“We more or less partnered with a funeral home to educate us to get off the ground, but we’re not tied to any one funeral home,” said Dave Fuller, president of Baldwin Hill Conservation Cemetery board of directors. “They know how to handle burials and we don’t want to be part of that business. We depend on burial contractors and partners to handle the actual burials.”
This partnership, which Kerncher believes is the first of its kind in the country, frees up the Kennebec Land Trust to focus on its other projects. Without it, Kerchner said the Baldwin Hill Conservation Cemetery “probably wouldn’t have been successful.”
Kerchner said the trust used the guidelines for the selection and development of green cemeteries in Maine to help direct its search for land, using criteria such as soil type and conditions, the depth of groundwater and other factors.
They found the perfect parcel: Baldwin Hill, overlooking the beautiful rolling hills and farmland of Fayette. The organization purchased the 90 acres in 2019.
“We also wanted it to be on a hill,” Kerchner said. “That sense that you have in places with a view of the natural landscape around you is something that many people appreciate.”
Kennebec Land Trust added an ADA-accessible trail for visitors to reach the burial sites. A pollinator garden and preservation of the lower, shrubby habitat are in the works.
Fuller said the Kennebec Land Trust estimates that the two acres prepared for burials can hold 300 people — the burial contractors will have to work around tree roots and other elements of the natural habitat — but it has the potential to expand, with 10 acres out of the total 90-acre parcel that could be used as burial ground.
Plus, Fuller said that 30 percent of the proceeds from selling interment rights will be used to maintain and expand the cemetery, making the project self-supporting.
Caitlyn Hauke, vice president and board member of the Green Burial Council, said that the Baldwin Hill Conservation Cemetery, which is the first Green Burial Council-certified conservation cemetery in New England, opens new doors for green burial.
“Hopefully, this cemetery will inspire others to consider opening additional conservation cemeteries in New England,” Hauke said. “A benefit of this is the land, and therefore the burial plot, will be protected in perpetuity. Another benefit is to the land itself, which, as a conserved area, will essentially be left unadulterated with a native and natural wildlife and plant habitat, preserving the natural ecosystems.”
Chuck Lakin, a volunteer with the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Maine, said the location of Baldwin Hill Conservation Cemetery — somewhat halfway between Maine’s other two green cemeteries in Orrington and Limington — spreads out the green burial landscape.
“For many people, how convenient it is to get to the cemetery and visit the grave of their family member or loved one is part of the process,” Lakin said.
Kerchner said that she and her colleagues have presented at a number of other land trusts, including at the annual Maine Land Conservation Conference. If more land trusts jump on board, that opens up acres of land for conservation cemeteries and green burials.
“There’s a lot of land in Maine that’s in the care of a land trust, so you’ve got all these possible places [for conservation cemeteries],” Lakin said. “It also offers land trusts a way to make a little bit of a living.”
Kerchner said that while she had a tremendous amount of support from conservation organizations and others like the Conservation Burial Ground Alliance, navigating the process wasn’t easy. In addition to finding a site, the land trust had to navigate challenges with insurance, consult with local planning boards and make sure the cemetery complied with Maine’s burial laws.
“I think there’s a tremendous amount of interest in the land trust world in green burials,” Kerchner said. “It’s just a matter of whether or not it’s the best use of a given organization’s resources and do they have the financial wherewithal to purchase the land and the site.” There also are environmental considerations such as soil types and wetlands.
For the Kennebec Land Trust, though, the decision was as natural as death itself.
“Clearly the concept of natural burial is compatible with the entire mission of the Kennebec Land Trust to acquire and maintain and preserve land and protect water resources and natural environments and provide wildlife habitat,” Fuller said. “To me, they are very compatible.”