Tuesday, January 1, 2008

How Green Was My Burial

"Well, there you go. Right there. A Baltimore Oriole."

Peter McHugh might remind you in looks of a modern day Saint Nicholas only with a much more controlled, and neatly trimmed beard. Today he's traded in any would-be red-suit for a greenish-gray chamois-shirt, and tough khaki woodsmen pants, though. Seated on a tall, sturdy stool in his Maine woods home kitchen he blows the smoke from a thin cigar up into a stove pipe chimney vent. Whoosh! up it goes sucked into the netherworld.

"See him there? In the branches near the shed?" He points.

Outside the near-invisible glass of a newly installed, sunny bay window addition stands three separate bird-feeders in the garden area. One for seed. One for suet. And one for ... more suet. It looks like a tiny house of worship complete with steeple, this last one. A church for God-fearing-birds. Only they get to eat a concoction of protein-rich, holy-lard for breakfast and lunch instead of some ordained wafers. Beating little hearts in this unforgivably frigid season. "More, more, more!" is their chirping chants, "or we'll freeze to death."

A winged, orange and black feathered visitor is taking advantage of the winter-time buffet.

But there's another matter at hand. A grave matter...

"Just last week we had another call," Says McHugh, recent Green Burial advocate and proprietor of Cedar Brook Burial Ground: A Green Cemetery in Limington, Maine, "Ten Muslim folks want to be buried side by side on our land. A Somali family. It's all very sacred to them. Keeping the family together."

"I see. So you have enough acreage to bury entire clans no matter the Faith do you?" I say with a wink.

"Sure, by God, whoever wants to sign up is welcomed here." He rejoinders. "We had a family from India who inquired about doing a funeral pyre before the burial. We're still checking with the Limington Fire Department on that one..."

Just then a fire-red cardinal lands on the snowy stonewall next to the "Church of Suet" to seemingly ingratiate the notion.

A giant human bonfire. Somewhere tucked away on 150 acres (2.1 acres, specifically, dedicated to the cemetery) of York County's pine forested land off of Boothby Road.

Boothby Road?

Not the Ganges River?

What gives here?

"Oh, yeah, as long as we have the bodies buried 413 Feet away from 'The Pond'," The Pond is a man-made pool excavated back in the early-1980's next to the McHugh homestead, "and off-set the same from the main road we'd have enough for about a thousand people. It's all G.P.S. (Global Positioning System) plotted. You'll be able to see all the burial spots on-line."

By the way, he has another side business that might seem an odd fit alongside this newly established one, as well...

"The Christmas Tree Farm will remain on the rest of the land away from the cemetery." He assures in his thick, salt-of-the-earth Maine accent.

McHugh's not alone in this novel venture in his native state, either, as another green burial cemetery is planned for Orrington, Maine several miles north of Limington (there are perhaps slightly over a dozen nationwide so far). Orrington's site is still in the planning stages, Cedar Brook is currently taking reservations.

So, what's the appeal here these "green burials"?

For starters about an $8,000 dollar price tag less than your average traditional funeral service for one!

You see, green burials are exactly as the name implies: Green.

Green as in good for the environment. And, that equates to sustainable practices for land use which, believe it or not, are far more sustainable on that green in the wallet, too.

Putting it in the plainest possible language: nothing is done to the body before burying it in green burial practices.

It is placed in a standard four-foot-deep (Six Feet Under is a mere myth...) by four-foot-wide by height-appropriate-foot-length plot site in its natural condition - unsullied, if you will - leaving it to naturally decompose on its own. That is, no embalming with those toxic formaldehyde fluids, nor any other expensive, harmful chemicals, necessary ... or permitted.

The beauty of the nitrogen-cycle in full, untampered with, effect!

In fact, use of any unnatural, non-organic substances (e.g. - dyes in burial clothing) on the corpse is downright discouraged all together; it's a totally green process remember? McHugh has been a long-time steward of the land around his property. He would not want any harm done to the plant-life, deer, pheasant, moose, bear or many other wildlife fauna frequently passing through his acreage so he prefers anything done here au natural.

As for other cost effective measures by going (going, gone...) green it also means many of the peripheral services normally attached to the more traditional funeral can be done away with completely, too.

Although a local funeral director is available (by referral through Cedar Brook), one is certainly not necessary, cutting out any associated costs right there. Relatives of the dead may arrange the actual funeral service to their liking, of course, but even the coffin isn't mandatory. An eco-friendly sheet, or wrap, will do just fine. But, nonetheless, a $30.00 pine-box model "coffin" is available if desired. That's right. You read the price correctly. Thirty dollars (U.S.) for a human-sized, pine-wood floored and cardboard-sided container. All 100% bio-degradable (pssst! it's the same thing they use for cremations basically)!

In fact, enviro-concern goes right down to the headstone; it's recommended that the memorial be a locally exhumed, surface level, engraved rock to serve each individual shrine.

Now for some potentially more morbid stuff to consider...

If there is one very sensitive, but major, cost-saving issue that needs to be seriously addressed in the funeral planning stages, however, it's this; if a family, or friend(s), decides to take on the transportation responsibilities of the remains - and, yes, it is completely legal to drive across the state, or state-lines, with a human cadaver! - they must make absolutely sure that the body is properly stored for whatever the calculated length of the travel time is. This is an imperative consideration ... and, quite frankly, is mostly thinking ahead in regards to the family's emotional comfort zone. Driving "Mittens" the cat to a resting place is one thing, hauling dearly departed Uncle Bob or Aunt Betty anywhere is entirely another concept...

(n.b. - For a far more detailed guide on green burials you may want to read up on author Mark Harris's informative book, 'Grave Matters: A Journey Through The Modern Funeral Industry To A Natural Way Of Burial', the resource Peter McHugh has referenced almost exclusively for his understanding of the green burial process).

Otherwise, once you've determined your plot location and made any other basic burial arrangements with Mr. McHugh your wish for how you would like to honor, mourn, and/or celebrate, the deceased's passing is absolutely up to you.

"One family of Harley (Davidson) motorcyclist enthusiasts called inquiring about the possibility of alcohol consumption and loud music involved at the service," recalls McHugh with a smile, "I laughed and said 'Sure, as long as I'm allowed to join in'."

He's kidding, of course, as McHugh mostly prefers not involving himself in any more funereal affairs than he's already taking on.

Bodies on the land: no problem.

Bodies in the house... not exactly his cup of tea.

Okay, so, perhaps having an entire pack of Harley riders roaring up on their smoky Hogs would not be such a green thing but, hey, when you consider that the departed is literally being laid out to pasture with no other added caustic frills it kind of makes up for the rest of it, don't you think?
Oh, and if you're at all wondering ...
Naturally, Peter and his life- partner,
Joyce, have already planned their green burial: alongside the Joshua Small Cemetery (a 19th century burial site long ago willed to the property and now historically preserved) lies a large, gray boulder with both his and her name already engraved on it's sides. This is their very own earth-delivered tombstone.

A clear, green conscience as a sort of fore thought for the after-life, eh? Indeed, how eternally peaceful is that.

For more information on Cedar Brook Burial Ground: A Green Cemetery visit Peter McHugh on-line at:



Anonymous said...

Hi Dennis,

Fantastic, and many thanks.

Peter M.

Anonymous said...

Forwarded response from author of "Grave Matters", Mark Harris:

"Hi, Peter,

Thanks for this. Tell Dennis nice job. I particularly enjoyed the line that Cedar Brook is "taking reservations." Thanks also to Dennis for mentioning the book!

Interesting to learn about the Somali and Indian families. Maybe you're carving out a nice niche in green burial . . . .