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Green Funerals: Being Buried in Maine the 'Natural' Way
08/08/2012   Reported By: Jennifer Mitchell

The funeral business has changed over the decades, from the rise of commercial funeral parlors, to the popularization of cremation. Now, a combination of new technology and old fashioned ideals is changing some people's after-death plans once again.

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Joan Howard: "Listen to the silence--there is none. And there's a different noise in the woods--it's different from out here. You hear things drop to the ground, you know, the plunk of an acorn, and things like that."

This meadow in Orrington, Maine, is a cemetery, although you would never know it. There are no stones sticking up from the ground. The air is alive with the sounds of jar flies and crickets. It's buzzing with bees collecting pollen from Queen Anne's lace and clover.

And if you look at a postcard of this meadow from 100 years ago, it looks just like this. That's why Joan Howard wants to be buried here--and she knows exactly where.

"My grandchildren pick flowers a lot of times in the field, pick flowers for me, and they had found some--I think they were wood anemones up there," she says. "And I've said to them, 'Show me where you got those flowers. Grammy will be buried where the flowers came from.'"

Howard is part of a growing number of people embracing alternative funeral arrangements, such as those offered at this meadow, known as Rainbow's End Cemetery. It's one of only two "green burial" grounds in the state, and one of only a handful around the country.

A century ago, it was common for people to prepare and bury deceased loved ones at home. But the new simplicity of funeral arrangements can be uncomfortable for the unprepared.

"Burying a loved one wrapped in an shroud or an old quilt in a hole in the ground is quite fine to many people," Howard says. "And those people who come to the cemetary for a funeral who have not been made aware, I think those people are sometimes shocked, almost maybe horrified."

But with some 30 million board feet of wood, and a million-and-a-half tons of concrete buried in funerals each year, some conservation-minded people like Howard say the natural decomposition that happens at the green burial ground is more appealing.

But not all funeral providers are quick to jump on the natural burial bandwagon.

"When you talk about a green funeral, we basically with a green funeral don't use chemicals to prepare the body--the body is buried in an acutal state," says undertaker Peter Neal. "Well, the problem, when someone dies at Thanksgiving, we need to hold that body until the middle of April before we can bury it."

Neal is a third generation undertaker in Guilford, Maine. His firm buries some 275 people each year--compared with just four or five each year at a green cemetery. The frigid climate, he says, may win this fight and put a damper on the green burials movement, at least in the Northeast.

But there's another green funeral option as well. Maine is home to the only low pressure, low temperature, green cremation unit in the country.

It's not actually "cremation" at all, and it isn't half as noisy as it sounds. The process is called alkaline hydrolysis, and uses a combination of natural, alkaline, minerals, and warm water to essentially wash the soft tissues away. Those soft tissues then go down the public sewer system, leaving only the bones.

The disposal of the so-called effluent is something that has raised the eyebrows of some clergy members. When Belfast funeral director Mark Riposta first introduced the process this spring, he says he had a lengthy discussion with a local priest at the Catholic church.

"Thirty-two years ago, when I first got into this profession, I couldn't bring cremtated remains into your church and have a mass, and he said, 'You're right,'" Riposta recalls. "I said we're going to find this being the same way without going to hydrolysis."

Once upon a time cremation was unthinkable for many families. When Riposta first started in the business over 30 years ago, he was doing about 3 percent cremation. That number is now 55 percent and growing--numbers which are widely reflected around the state.

He says adding the new green technology makes sense because the demands of the planet are changing. He points to recent air quality regulations in the European Union aimed at crematories. The rules require the installation of expensive filters meant to cut down on toxins like mercury and dioxin, two common cremation emmissions not currently being regulated in the U.S.

Such regulations here, Riposta says, would break the bank. "I do believe that within 10 years, flame cremation will probably be eliminated, and we probably will be dealing completely with alkaline hydrolysis," he says.

The hydro unit uses only 10 percent of the energy used by a traditional unit, and he says all the parts and maintenance costs are much lower as well, and it's safer for his directors to operate.

What people seek through both green burial and hydrolysis, say proponents, is a "gentle" method of disposition. However, it's hard to ignore the difference on the price tag as well. In Maine, a person spends an average of about $7,500 on a burial, whereas both the green alternatives can be had for about $1,500 or less.


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