Did the carpenter who built this coffin bore holes into its base?
That's the question I had as members of the Portland, Maine, Jewish burial society wheeled the coffin above into the receiving paddock of a local funeral home, pulled off the protective wrapping, and invited me to take a look.
Orthodox Jews take a “dust to dust” view of burial, as advocated in that well-known verse in Genesis, and their coffins (when used at all) are thus crafted to allow for the ready decay of both the box and its occupant.
I'd seen plenty of pictures of Jewish coffins. This was my first look at a real one, which proved representative of the type. It had been fashioned from plain, pine boards and fastened without the use of any metal -- that is, non-biodegradable -- parts. The box itself was of a simple, plain make. No stain or varnish had been applied to the lumber; looping rope sufficed for handles.
The lid was split into two panels, which were attached to the body with wood dowels. When members of the society pulled out the dowels and lifted off the panels, they revealed the coffin's rough, unlined interior. There was no mattress or cushion to receive the body that would eventually reside here, no bedframe. This was clearly nothing more than a plain, pine box, a no-frills vehicle to quick decomposition.
I'd read in the course of my research that some Jewish coffin makers go one further for natural return: they drill holes into the bottom of their boxes to invite the elements, super-speeding the decay they'd already designed into their handiwork.
And the builder of this coffin, I saw as I looked inside it, had clearly done just that. If you look closely at the photograph above, you'll see the three holes he/she had bored into the center of the coffin base.
As the natural burial movement gains traction, it's beginning to offer families caskets fashioned from all kinds of eco-friendly materials, from cardboard to recycled paper mache. Most, if not all, are better for the planet than the sealed, metal caskets that are standard feature of the modern American funeral. Few, I would argue, are as truly green as this Jewish make above.
Back with a post on January 4th. Happy holidays.
Mark Harris Author, Grave Matters (www.gravematters.us)
New Englanders seeking a natural return for their loved ones won't have to wait until Maine's Rainbow's End goes, ah, "live," this coming spring.
A new woodland cemetery in the southern part of Maine offers dust-to-dust, chemical-free burial in a verdant green right now.
Launched three months ago, the Cedar Brook Burial Ground takes root on a two-acre wood of mostly pine and hemlock in Limington, a rural hamlet some thirty miles due west of Portland. Within its borders sits the rock wall-enclosed Joshua Small Cemetery, a tiny, historic graveyard whose dozen burials date back to the early 1800s. Both new and old cemeteries are part of larger, 150-acre expanse of pine forest that is owned, and, at times, selectively cut, by Peter McHugh.
That's a lot of green. And Peter, a genial, 70-something jack-of-all-trades, wants to make sure it stays that way. "I was looking for a way to preserve the land from development," Peter told me on my recent swing through Maine in November, "and on the Internet I came upon this article about green burial and cemeteries."
The very idea of natural burial squared with what Peter calls his KIS philosophy of life: Keep It Simple. In fact, he'd already planned for his own basic burial on a small family plot he'd staked out next to the Joshua Small cemetery, as is allowed by state law. [Maine residents may legally establish family graveyards on no more than a quarter-acre of their private land as long as it's at least 413 feet from a public water source, no permit required.]
Peter saw that transforming a larger parcel of his holdings into a green cemetery would pay bigger dividends. It would not only accommodate other, non-family members who sought a greener way to go but, as the article suggested, also keep bulldozers from his land. A green cemetery would bring some changes to the landscape -- the appearance of engraved fieldstone among the pines -- but these changes were preferable to the alternatives. "If you have to have neighbors, the dead make awfully good ones," says Peter.
Peter investigated the legal requirements for non-family, private cemeteries this past summer and found few hurdles. No ordinances in the town of Limington address the issue. And, as Ellen Hills had found with Rainbow's End, the state of Maine's few requirements were easy to meet (see the Nov. 30 blog entry below). This past summer, Peter invested a couple of thousand dollars in a survey of the land and for some signage. In September, he sent his completed application for cemetery registration to the state Department of Health and Human Services. Within two weeks, his application for a private cemetery was approved.
Since opening Cedar Brook three months ago, Peter has had many inquires but no burials as of yet (although he wrote me just this week to say the first is imminent). As with other natural cemeteries, burials at Cedar Brook will occur in vaultless graves; coffins made from metal or treated wood are banned, embalmed remains are prohibited. Peter will supply a family with a smallish stone, collected on site, for use as a grave maker, at no charge.
Cost of burial is $800 per single site, $1,200 for two sites. The burial of a military veteran, of which Peter is one, runs $600.
In some natural cemeteries families are welcome to "open" – that is, dig out -- the grave themselves. When I asked Peter if he'd allow that at Cedar Brook, he chuckled. "You can’t put a toothpick into the ground there without hitting a rock," he says. "We'll dig them out with a backhoe." For that, Peter hires an independent contractor, who charges families an additional $500 ($700 in winter, when the ground is harder to work).
Mark Harris author, Grave Matters (www.gravematters.us)
The fourteen acres of meadow and pine forest that hug the Penobscot River just south of Bangor, Maine, look as bucolic and unspoiled as they did when a school teacher named Charles Annable bought the land in 1921 and turned it into a natural retreat he called Rainbow's End.
Decades later, his daughter is making sure it stays that way -- by turning it into a natural cemetery.
"I was looking for a way to preserve my father's land after I died," a retired teacher in her mid 80's named Ellen Hills told me as we walked Rainbow's End on a bright autumn afternoon recently. The town she offered it to had no use for the additional property, a local nature conservancy told her they'd sell it. "And then I came across this article in AARP Magazine on Ramsey Creek Preserve and thought, 'That's just what I should do with Rainbow's End."
The first green cemetery in the United States, Ramsey Creek offers a simple, natural return to the elements on thirty-some acres of mostly pine forest in the South Carolina foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The AARP article touted the strategy's clear value to families -- its low cost, the opportunity for highly personal funerals, the ecological pluses of dust-to-dust interment, and the beauty of the final resting place itself.
But for Ellen, it was the potential benefit to landowners that appealed most. Ramsey Creek didn't just offer a green burial in a green locale; it provided a model for how to preserve good land like hers from the bulldozers. By transforming her property into a natural cemetery like Ramsey Creek, Ellen saw that she could forever put Rainbow's End off-limits to the developers who might someday turn it into a housing development or strip mall or water park. The strategy even provided a mechanism to fund the on-going preservation her land: the burial fees themselves.
As she explored the green cemetery concept, Ellen found no insurmountable legal roadblocks. The state of Maine, for one, allows for private cemeteries, as long as a site plan is submitted and the graveyard is located at a certain distance from nearby homes and drinking water supplies, among a few other requirements. Orrington, the town in which Ellen's property sits, also permits private cemeteries in rural zones such as Ellen's.
To get her cemetery off the ground, Ellen enlisted the help of the Funeral Consumers Alliance (FCA) of Maine, a pro-consumer group based in Auburn whose advocacy of simple, low-cost funerals squares with the ethics of green burial. After much discussion, the FCA became a major supporter of the project, assuming owner/operator status of Rainbow's End and agreeing to loan the cemetery up to $10,000.
Since that time, ownership of the land has passed to a non-profit corporation made up largely of Ellen and other landowners adjacent Rainbow's End. The corporation has drawn up a site plan, which deeds four acres of the property to the Hill family members (until their deaths) and establishes the remaining land as a cemetery. The group has also decided to funnel 25% to 30% of the cemetery income into an account for the perpetual upkeep of the property. The Orrington planning board reviewed the plans and granted its approval in August.
On the day of my visit to Rainbow's End in early November, its board of directors was discussing the cemetery fees (as I reported in last week’s blog) and considering arrangements for the opening and closing of graves, the use of a local carpenter to provide pine coffins, and the like.
The board secretary was in the process of submitting an application to the state for tax-exempt status. The board hopes that the application will gain approval sometime in early 2008 and that Rainbow's End will open for burials in the spring.
When it does, Maine families won’t have to travel out of state to find a final, green resting place.
Turns out Rainbow's End won't be their only choice. Two weeks before my visit with Ellen Hills, I learned that another landowner in the southern part of the state had recently opened the first natural cemetery not just in Maine but in all of New England.
We'll look at Cedar Brook next week.
Note on photos. The photo that heads this blog shows Ellen Hills at Rainbow's End. The one following pictures the site Ellen has roped off for her family's graves, including her own.