AUGUSTA — The iconic image of a veterans cemetery, which can be seen everywhere from Normandy in France to Arlington, Virginia, has white headstones aligned with military precision in perfect rows in a carefully groomed setting, a place of honor to last the ages.

That picture is 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 all eternity.

Those who prefer a traditional military gravesite can have one, Brown said. Green burials would simply be a new option.

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)

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.

What is a green burial?

Since the rise of the environmental movement half a century ago, there’s been a growing effort to find a more eco-friendly approach to the dead.

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 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.

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 ready for burial, 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.

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 the ultimate in recycling,” Lakin said.

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 green burial grounds in the U.S. and Europe, said they usually “look like a beautiful natural area.”

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.”

The green burial plan in Augusta

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.

It would 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.

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 happen 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 as 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.

One experience with 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.”

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