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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.

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