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Friday, November 30, 2007

A Natural Cemetery Grows in Maine

Add Maine to the small but growing list of states that can boast of green burial grounds within their borders.

Located just south of Bangor, Rainbow's End offers a natural return to the elements on fourteen acres of meadowland and pine forest that hug the lower run of the Penobscot River, not far from where it flows into the Bay and, from there, the Atlantic.

The meadow, which accounts for half the total cemetery acreage, greets you when you pull up to the site. On the day of my visit a couple of weeks ago, ankle-high grass covered the ground, though in the spring and summer months it's overrun with wildflowers native to this corner of Maine and a profusion of white and yellow daffodils.

Burial of whole bodies may take place here, as well as the burial and/or scattering of ashes. As with other natural cemeteries, the non-profit organization that runs Rainbow's End permits only unembalmed remains to be buried, in either cloth shrouds or coffins made from readily biodegradable materials. Metal caskets and burial vaults are banned. Flat stones may be used to mark the grave.

The board of directors, many of whom live on properties adjoining the cemetery, hope to open Rainbow's End in early 2008, after they've gained tax-exempt status from the state. At this point, they expect to charge $750 for burial/scattering rights, plus somewhere in the $300 to $400 range to open and close the grave.

A number of board members I walked the leaf-strewn meadow with told me they thought most families would want to be laid to rest here. But as we entered the forest that fills out the back half of the cemetery, I wasn’t so sure. Overspread with mostly towering white pines, intermingled with spruce and fir, some birch along the shoreline, the enveloping green of this simple woodland seemed a more visually compelling, somehow more welcoming site for a natural return.

Walking the path that cut through these woods, we arrived at the far end where the land falls away to the Penobscot. Standing on the promontory overlooking the river, I could imagine Maine families standing on this very spot and wanting, when their time came, to use what remained of the physical part of their life, to rejoin this ground and become part of the natural cycles that turn here.

The place at which I was standing, in fact, is where Ellen Hills told me she will be buried someday. Ellen's family has owned this land for more than eighty years, and it was her idea to transform it into a natural cemetery.

Next week: We’ll learn just why -- how -- Ellen did it.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Ramsey Creek Redux

The Ramsey Creek Preserve, as enthusiasts of natural burial know, is the first -- and until recently only -- green cemetery in the United States.

On a trip down to Georgia last week, I stopped off in tiny Westminster, South Carolina, to tour Ramsey Creek's leafy grounds for the first time since visiting some four summers ago and coming away with the germ of an idea that would become Grave Matters.

I found it looking even more beautiful and -- for that final rest -- more inviting than I'd remembered.

The somewhat utilitarian signpost at the entrance had been replaced with a rugged boulder bounded on two sides by rock pillars, the cemetery's name and founding date etched into the boulder's smooth face. And the weather-beaten chapel, which owners Billy and Kimberley Campbell had saved from demolition and installed at the head of the main cemetery trail, boasted fresh clapboard siding and a small porch.

What impressed me most, though, was the burial ground itself. Now the site of dozens of additional burials, the pine forest that is the Ramsey Creek cemetery had retained its natural character, remaining more nature preserve than graveyard. As before, I had trouble identifying most of the graves that skirt the trail running through the preserve. The minimal graves still blend so seamlessly into the landscape that they’re largely inconspicuous, and remain free of the usual dross of the modern cemetery -- the plastic flowers, pottery vases, crepe displays -- I'd frankly expected to find here.

Not surprisingly, I guess, my short walk brought me to Billy Campbell, who was digging a grave on a break from seeing patients at his family practice. He'd just started turfing off the top layer of dirt and depositing it onto a tarp beside the grave, the first step in an ecologically-sensitive excavation strategy Billy describes in the book.

Green burial has come a long way since Billy dug that first grave at Ramsey Creek in the fall of 1998 and, with it, launched a movement. What at the time struck many as a quirky idea whose appeal would be limited to granola crunchers, green burial is now reaching into the mainstream. A summer issue of People magazine devoted four pages to the Campbells' approach to burial, sandwiched between stories of Matthew McConaughey's bachelorhood and Paris Hilton's meltdown in rehab. A Canadian film crew was in the woods scouting out shots during my walk; a photographer from the Chicago Tribune would follow days later.

The media is here because it recognizes that green burial isn't just about the environment. As the Campbells have long argued, it also represents an embrace of old-fashioned American values of simplicity, thrift, and self-sufficiency that continue to have widespread currency. And far from being quirky or bizarre, natural burial is little more than a return to a once common practice in this country, a default burial that has served humanity for thousands of years.

As the green burial movement grows and matures, it can look to Ramsey Creek as a model of the best of what green burial has to offer: A thriving, natural green where the dead can return to and rejoin the elements as directly and simply as possible and, in the process, perpetuate the cycles of life that sustain all life. More than that, this pine forest in the wilds of South Carolina provides a compelling strategy for preserving land from development and returning it to ecological health.

Next week: A natural cemetery takes root Maine.

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Grave Matters

Facebook page for the book on green burial, Grave Matters, with updates on the growing movement.