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Friday, December 07, 2007

A Natural Cemetery Preserves a Small Green in Maine

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.


Anonymous said...

watched and listened to TV and radio program on this...marvelous...I would like to know how to contact someone about this...

Mark Harris said...

Yes, Rainbow's End is a beautiful place and offers a great service. If you want to get in contact with someone there, try Joan Howard, who sits on the board. Contact information: 207-825-3843.

Good luck --
Mark Harris

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