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Friday, December 14, 2007

Cedar Brook: New England's First Natural Cemetery

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 (


Mark Harris said...

Peter McHugh sent me this note about opening/closing graves at Cedar Brook:

"We are more than happy to have a member or members of the family or any one designated by them open and close the grave. I didn't mean to say only the local grave digger may do the job, just that it may not be easy digging."

Cedar Brook Burial Ground said...

Thank you Mark.

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