A measure before the state Legislature this session would allow Mainers to choose a death ritual that stretches back to ancient times but has largely vanished from modern-day America: outdoor cremations.

If adopted, it would let people in the Pine Tree State choose to go out like a Jedi or a Viking king in a blaze of glory in the open air.

Anyone who has watched “Game of Thrones” or “The Phantom Menace” has seen at least a fictional funeral pyre, with bodies cremated on a bed of timber in a sometimes-elaborate ceremony.

It’s a way of sending off the dead that’s still widely practiced in some parts of the world but there are only two sites in the United States where it’s legal, both in Colorado, only one of them public. It’s limited to no more than a dozen funerals annually.

A 1548 engraving by Hans Sebald Beham, called “Hercules on His Funeral Pyre” from a series of renderings on the labors of Hercules. Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York

A bill before the state Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee would allow a nonprofit that possesses at least 20 acres to carry out open-air cremations, one at a time, and to scatter the ashes on the property.

A nonprofit cemetery group called Good Ground, Great Beyond, formed in 2018, is trying to get permission to have outdoor funeral pyres on a 63-acre forested parcel it has owned in Dresden for the past couple of years.

“The intention for the land is to become a contemplative community sanctuary, scattering garden and space for open-air cremation,” the group says on its website. “Our mission is to gather minds and hearts together in ongoing and active support of making open-air cremation an option available to the community.”

The nonprofit’s founder, an interfaith hospice minister, Angela Lutzenberger, said she saw that people too often became disempowered after a death, turning over the details to a funeral director rather than staying engaged together.

As a Buddhist, Lutzenberger said in a video on the group’s website that she would “dearly love to have access” to open-air cremation when her time comes, calling it a natural way to bring together earth and sky, the seen and the unseen.

There are a lot of people, she said, “who would just like to have options.”

Chuck Lakin, a woodworker and green burial proponent who serves on the nonprofit’s board, said one of the real advantages is that families and friends can gather for the cremation instead of relying on a business to push a body into an incinerator and hit a button.

A 1778 painting by Jacques-Louis David titled “The Funeral Games of Patroclus” depicts the funeral of Patroclus during the Trojan War, with his body and Achilles at the foot of the pyre while Hector rests on his chariot. National Gallery of Ireland

Open-air cremation is an idea that has cropped up in other states. Only Colorado, though, has opened the door, however narrowly.

In Missouri, legislators passed a measure to allow open-air cremations in 2019, but the state’s governor, Michael Parson, vetoed it.

In his veto message, Parson said, “The burial of our loved ones or the disposal of their remains is deeply personal and should be treated with the utmost care and respect.”

“Without more thorough vetting to ensure that outdoor cremations can be conducted in a manner that fully disposes of the entire remains while also addressing the health and safety concerns of individuals who may be impacted nearby, I am not comfortable with allowing these types of ceremonies to be conducted in our state,” he wrote.

Lakin said he thinks the outside funeral pyres offer a more respectful option than the cremations many choose these days because people can be present for a ceremony they create. He said it can be beautiful.

At the Colorado site for outdoor cremations, linen-wrapped bodies are placed atop a steel grate inside a brick-lined hearth surrounded by concrete that’s a few feet high. Wood is piled under the grate to provide the necessary heat and juniper branches piled around the corpse. Families usually light the flame, something that holds religious value to many Hindus and Buddhists.

The notion expressed by Parson that outdoor cremations pose a hazard appears to be mistaken.

In a report for the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Justice, Ivan Vince, an expert in combustion science, looked into the environmental and health risks connected to open-air cremation and found nothing to worry about.

Vince said that health risks are negligible beyond 500 meters and even those close up are taking no greater risk than they would at a bonfire the same size. He also concluded that funeral pyres held on woodland sites “would have zero carbon footprint.”

Maine is already the nation’s leader in the percentage of people who choose cremation over burial, with about three-quarters of Mainers opting for cremation as a less expensive alternative to burial.

Green burial options that do away with coffins and embalming are already available – and more and more people are eyeing them, advocates say.

A public hearing has yet to be scheduled on the proposal.


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