AUGUSTA — The iconic image of a veterans’ cemetery, which can be seen from Normandy to Arlington, has white headstones aligned with military precision in perfect rows in a carefully groomed setting, a place of honor meant to last the ages.
That picture is, however, changing.
The Maine Veterans’ Cemetery System, which has four state-run burial grounds, plans to make more options available to veterans, their spouses and their dependents when their time comes.
The newest possibility, likely to be in place within five years, is a “green burial” that avoids costly coffins and embalming in favor of preserving the natural landscape.
Scott Brown, superintendent of the system, said he envisions plots within a meadow filled with wildflowers and along a winding path through the woods at the Maine Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Augusta.
Once the new green burial area is complete, families could choose it, Brown said, or they could pick from among other options that include everything from cremation to double vault plots where loved ones can remain together for something like forever.
Those who prefer a traditional military gravesite can have one, Brown said. Green burials would simply be a new option, not something anyone would have to pick.
Alison Rector, a board member of the nonprofit Funeral Consumers Alliance of Maine, said it’s wonderful that green burials may soon be an alternative for veterans.
“Most people don’t know there’s a choice,” said Chuck Lakin, a home funeral educator.
When they learn about green burials, he said, they’re often “astonished there are options” beyond the conventional funeral home experience.
He said it’s not for everyone, but everyone should know it’s a possibility.
More and more, Lakin said, “People are starting to ask” about it.
That the Maine Veterans Memorial Cemetery is eyeing the option, he said, is a good indication of how big a change society has already experienced.
“I really want to see this happen,” Lakin said.
What is a green burial?
Since the rise of the environmental movement half a century ago, there’s been a growing — though still small — effort to come up with a more eco-friendly way to deal with the dead.
There’s no requirement, after all, that bodies wind up pumped full of embalming fluids, placed in sealed caskets or entombed in concrete vaults.
The reality is that in every state it is possible to put a body in the ground pretty much as is.
Take a step back in time and it’s more easily understood.
Embalming only came into existence during the Civil War, as a way to transport bodies from the battlefield back home. Coffins were once a luxury. Vaults were something only the richest people could imagine.
But in recent generations, much that was once impossible or beyond the reach of ordinary people has become commonplace.
In some ways, green burial is one of those back-to-the-future alternatives, a reaction against the cost and environmental toll of the modern-day funeral.
“It’s the way we used to do it 150 years ago,” Rector said.
“Everything old is new again,” Brown said.
The Green Burial Council, which promotes the idea, calls natural burials “a way of caring for the dead with minimal environmental impact that aids in the conservation of natural resources, reduction of carbon emissions, protection of worker health, and the restoration and/or preservation of habitat” by avoiding materials such as caskets, shrouds and urns that won’t easily degrade.
The way Brown envisions it, bodies, perhaps wrapped in a biodegradable shroud or placed beneath some pine boughs, would be lowered into the ground. They might also wind up in a wooden casket held together by dowels, Brown said.
Green burials have a clean simplicity that some people want, Brown said.
Lakin, a woodworker who makes coffins, said bodies are usually placed a bit more than 3 feet in the ground and then covered with the dirt from the hole created for them.
It’s close enough to the surface to allow plants, insects and worms to seize their opportunity.
“It’s kind of like composting yourself,” Lakin said. “It’s the ultimate in recycling.”
Another key element of green burials is that pesticides and fertilizers are prohibited. The goal is to leave the land in as natural a state as possible.
Rector, who has seen quite a few green burial grounds in the United States and Europe, said they usually “look like a beautiful natural area.”
The green burial plan in Augusta
An online survey that about 600 Maine veterans filled out recently found that about a third of them are somewhat or very likely to choose a green burial located in an area with native trees, shrubs and flowers that may not have traditional markers for each grave.
Some, though, didn’t like the concept.
“Most definitely a bad idea and disrespectful to any Maine veteran,” said one anonymous responder. “Can the idea immediately.”
But Brown, a retired U.S. Air Force military police officer who has led the cemetery system for a couple of years, said he’s ready to press on. He said an architect will likely be hired soon to come up with a conceptual plan for the green burial area in a graveyard section that hasn’t yet been needed.
The area eyed for the project consists of a large field that contains a lot of rock and an adjoining forest.
Though both would ultimately be kept in a semi-wild state, it will be necessary to create permanent paths, lay out plots and figure out how to record the men and women buried there. Brown said he’s thinking about a low wall with their names engraved on it, but that’s far from a done deal, especially because veteran cemetery regulators have to approve anything that’s done.
Brown said the state wants to make sure its proposed green burial option is done well.
“We’re trying to do it the right way and taking our time,” he said.
He said the cemetery has plenty of available space — it’s only used 20 of its 100 acres in Augusta — so the green alternative has nothing to do with running short of acreage, a problem that has spurred some urban cemeteries to look into the idea. It’s also not about saving money, though it would help with that.
Brown said the bottom line is there is a public desire to have the option available and he feels driven to provide it.
“It means something to me to take care of my fellow brothers and sisters” who served their country, he said.
Brown said the cemetery gets about 10 inquiries a month asking about green burial. That doesn’t mean they’d all choose one, he said, but it shows it’s a viable option.
He said he’s pretty confident that within five years, the green burial area will be available for those who want it.
Given that it’s both the most environmentally friendly — no small consideration in a state that values outdoor living — and also “the least expensive option,” Brown is sure quite a few families will want green burials.
The survey taken by the cemetery system found that 42 percent of Maine veterans would likely consider a green burial because of its cost and low impact on the environment. A third were sure they wouldn’t pick a green burial.
By giving veterans more choices, “we’re trying to do good,” Brown said
The area eyed for green burials consists of 5 acres of woods and a 2-acre meadow. Ideally, Brown said, the meadow would never be mowed. It might be burned over on occasion, he said, to maintain its character.
It ought to be lovely, he said.
Green burial comes to life
The concept of green burials began picking up steam in the United Kingdom and Germany half a century ago.
The first explicitly green burial cemetery in the U.S. didn’t open until 1998, in South Carolina, but the movement has grown quickly.
“It seems like there’s more and more interest,” Rector said.
Maine has at least two cemeteries for green burials — Cedar Brook Burial Ground in Limington and Rainbow’s End Natural Cemetery in Orrington. Others may offer it is an option.
There’s been talk of one in Belfast or perhaps on land owned by the Kennebec Land Trust. Lakin said he knows of four new green burial grounds in the works in Maine, not counting the one for veterans.
Across the country, veteran cemeteries are beginning to embrace the idea. Pikes Peak National Cemetery in Colorado plans to start interring veterans for green burials in October.
Even Arlington National Cemetery outside of the nation’s capital offers some space for unmarked green burials, thanks to a push by a Florida congressman, Charles Bennett, who is now in the ground there.
Rector said she thinks there will be increasing interest in green burials, especially among people who have spent much of their lives recycling, composting and otherwise trying to show concern for the planet.
For baby boomers who absorbed the environmental cause, Rector said, how to dispose of their remains “is their final consumer choice.”
One man’s experience with a green burial
Eighteen months ago, Lakin’s wife, Penney, died at his Waterville home, where she spent her final five weeks after battling cancer.
When she died, he said, he kept her body at home.
He’d seen how unsatisfying it was when a funeral home took his father’s body away decades earlier, returning some ashes fours day later from a cremation.
“I hated that,” Lakin said. “I wanted to be part of whatever happened,” but never got the chance.
With his wife, though, he had friends come and they were “laughing and crying and telling stories” while her body was right there, where he could talk to her, hold her hand and “just be there.”
“It’s very healing because it’s so personal,” Lakin said.
He made her coffin, he said, and on the fourth day he put her in the back of a pickup truck and drove to the Rainbow’s End green burial ground. He put her in the ground with others at his side, and then filled in the hole.
“It was so personal,” Lakin said. “It’s so profound.”
Veterans cemeteries need help
Maine’s state veteran cemeteries lean heavily on volunteers to provide the amenities that make the burial grounds pleasant.
But in Augusta, where there are two cemeteries, volunteers are running short.
The Veterans Memorial Cemetery Association is looking for new members and donors who can help with its effort to ensure there are carillons, memorial walkways, trees and shrubs, monuments and more to enhance the cemeteries on Mount Vernon Road and Civic Center Drive.
Scott Brown, superintendent of the state’s cemetery system, said the volunteers are crucial and he would dearly love to see more people get involved to lend a hand.
Anyone interested should contact Kelley Wynne, the association’s chair, at email@example.com.
Headstones at the Maine Veterans Memorial Cemetery on Mount Vernon Road in Augusta. (Steve Collins/Sun Journal)
Scott Brown, superintendent of the Maine Veterans Cemetery System, stands on the site of a proposed green burial ground at the Maine Veterans’ Cemetery in Augusta. (Steve Collins/Sun Journal)
Maine Veterans Memorial Cemetery sign in Augusta. (Steve Collins/Sun Journal)
Headstones in a traditional section of the Maine Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Augusta. (Steve Collins/Sun Journal)
Site at the Maine Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Augusta where officials plan to create a green burial ground using the 2-acre field and 5 acres of adjoining forest. (Steve Collins/Sun Journal)
Chuck Lakin is a home funeral and green burial educator who makes coffins. (Sun Journal file photo)