Earth Notes: Chilling out in Maine

earthnotesBy Sally Chappell

As long as many of us are bracing ourselves for a long winter here in Maine, we might as well consider another chilling thought: We’re all going to die someday. Notwithstanding the efforts of the transhumanists working on living forever via sophisticated technology, most of us will be passing through this world with our bodies giving out in a variety of ways.

What will our families do with our bodies? Death can happen at any age. This may not be the cheeriest of topics, but its importance cannot be overlooked. With over seven billion humans on the planet right now with more to come, the impact of burial practices has to be considered. Over 30 million board feet of hardwood, 1.6 million tons of concrete and more than 100,000 tons of metal are used in full-body burials each year. Many people are looking at “green burials.”

What are green burials? Generally, green burials speed up the natural decaying process rather than retarding decay like the techniques so many modern funeral practices employ. The Green Burial Council advocates replacing toxic embalming fluids like formaldehyde with greener alternatives such as dry ice and nontoxic formulations. Biodegradable shrouds, coffins and caskets are other ways of lowering the impact of burial as well as forgoing a concrete vault, which is often required by traditional lawn cemeteries to prevent the soil from subsiding.

I checked out local options for green burials. For earth burials, it is possible to forego embalming with a closed casket. A wood casket is a good choice for biodegradability, and even cardboard is available although not a popular item. Except for a cemetery in Bolsters Mills, all local cemeteries require concrete vaults as a casing for the casket, coffin or shroud. Despite the fact that nobody actually sees the vaults, some can be quite elaborately decorated although Dana Chandler of Chandler Funeral Homes gives Mainers credit for being “smart enough not to spend our money that way.” Another option for avoiding a vault is to create a cemetery on your private property.

Cremation saves space in cemeteries and eliminates the need for embalming. It is not without its environmental impacts, however, such as emissions of dioxins and mercury plus the high temperatures needed resulting in greenhouse gas emissions.

A new technology, alkaline hydrolysis, washes the body in an alkaline solution eliminating soft tissue and leaving only bones as the remains. It is legal in only seven states, Maine being one of them. There are religious objections to the process presently, but perhaps given time, it will become more acceptable in the same way that cremation did.

Maine hosts two green burial sites — one in Orrington (Rainbow’s End Cemetery) and the other in Limington (Cedar Brook Burial Ground). These cemeteries preserve natural habitat and eliminate the need for mowing and concrete vaults. Burial sites of departed loved ones can be found using GPS or can be marked using engraved stones found on the land in the cemetery.

Three funeral homes in Maine have earned Green Burial Council certification: Jones, Rich & Hutchins Funeral Home in Portland, Veilleux Funeral Home in Waterville and Lindquist Funeral Home in Yarmouth. Another plus for green burials is that they are generally less expensive than full-body burials.

Respecting the dead while ensuring that the living and future generations are left with a livable planet can be compatible goals. As we prepare for winter — putting our gardens to bed, marking driveways for inevitable snow, getting wood supplies ready, filling the oil and gas tanks, etc. — we might also think about the “big chill” of our bodies, which will be left on the earth in one form or another.

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