Green burial? Home funeral? Local advocates want you to know your options

  • Some portions of Wilton's Laurel Hill Cemetery are reserved for green burials. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Some portions of Wilton's Laurel Hill Cemetery are reserved for green burials. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Some portions of Wilton's Laurel Hill Cemetery are reserved for green burials. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Some portions of Wilton’s Laurel Hill Cemetery are reserved for green burials. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Some portions of Wilton's Laurel Hill Cemetery are reserved for green burials. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Some portions of Wilton's Laurel Hill Cemetery are reserved for green burials. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Some portions of Wilton's Laurel Hill Cemetery are reserved for green burials. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • The green burial section of Wilton's Laurel Hill Cemetery has the first three plots delineated. August 26, 2021. Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 10/25/2021 4:15:12 PM

Have you ever thought about what you’d like to happen to your body after you die? You might be surprised by the options available to you. In New Hampshire, your family could host a viewing and funeral at home, for instance, and even perform a home burial, with certain limitations. You can opt to be buried in a place that will revert to a forest. Even if you know what you want, do your loved ones know? Do you know what they want for themselves?

Whether a person seeks a more meaningful celebration of life, a more environmentally friendly arrangement or simply a more affordable funeral and final disposition for themselves or a loved one, there are lots of advocates and resources for navigating the options, some based right in the Monadnock Region.

“You have a choice. You don’t have to push the button on the funeral machine and then things are taken out of your control,” Wilton resident and green-burial advocate  Sandy LaFleur said.

Mark Cournoyer of Cournoyer Funeral Home and Cremation Center in Jaffrey is used to discussing options with families who have specific interests. When a home funeral is within a family’s comfort zone, Cournoyer has advised on how to naturally preserve the body for three days or longer in their home, he said.

“We try to work with families when they have questions about the laws or regulations,” he said. Today, about 80 percent of New Hampshire residents are cremated, and 20 percent are buried, Cournoyer said, and many services take place without a body being embalmed. Although requests for green burials are not too common, Cournoyer directs interested families to appropriate resources, he said.

His funeral home has also fielded two requests in recent years for alkaline hydrolysis, a process likened to cremation by water, in which a body is dissolved by lye and water in a specialized machine. It’s pricier than traditional cremation but is likely less energy-intensive, Cournoyer said, and mimics the way rain and soil chemicals naturally decompose a body. The technology is currently legal in Maine, but not New Hampshire, Cournoyer said, and they’ve collaborated with a funeral home in Maine for both requests.

Green burials

Green burials, much like home funerals, aren’t new; they were the norm before embalming and concrete vaults around caskets became commonplace, LaFleur said. Wilton’s Laurel Hill cemetery is one of the few area cemeteries that explicitly allows green burials. Interments in the green-burial section use only biodegradable materials. The body is not embalmed, and is not placed in a concrete, plastic or gravel-lined vault, as has become common in cemeteries. Once the section’s 56 lots are filled, the land will be allowed to return to a natural, forested state.

LaFleur, who lives in Wilton, and fellow advocate Alisha DiMasi of Lyndeborough successfully convinced the Wilton Cemetery Trustees to allow green burials at Laurel Hill in 2017. The commission’s bylaws previously required vaults for burials, but it wasn’t immediately clear to anyone why, LaFleur said. Eventually, they learned the requirement was to keep the ground from compressing after a body decomposes in the earth, LaFleur said. “We’re doing all of this because it makes it easier to mow?” she remembered asking. The commissioners agreed to just add more soil on top of bodies buried in the green-burial section of the cemetery to counteract the compression.

For DiMasi, a green burial resonates spiritually in a way that other options do not. “My personal values dictate to me that I want to be in contact with that soil,” she said, returning her body to the earth in a way that nourishes it. “It’s just all about people having choices to do what is right for them.”

There have only been two plot purchases since the green -burial section was approved, Wilton cemetery trustee Mary Ann Shea said, but there have been many calls from people who live out of town and are therefore ineligible for burial at the cemetery.

In New Hampshire, town cemetery commissioners and trustees are the authorities in whether green burials are allowed or not in town-owned cemeteries, New Hampshire-based funeral reform advocate Lee Webster said. Though it was commonplace years ago, there hasn’t been much progress in reestablishing the practice in town cemeteries. The Ledger-Transcript asked cemetery commissioners throughout the Monadnock region about the practice and many said their towns had either never discussed green burials, or that vaults were required for all burials. However, cemetery commissioners in New Ipswich, Francestown, and Lyndeborough had at some point discussed the potential for green burials in future expansions. Meanwhile, the Friends Natural Burial Ground in Jaffrey allows green burials for members of the Monadnock Quaker Meeting, and Life Forest in Hillsborough allows green burials, each to be marked with a tree that is managed by the cemetery.

Advocacy

Green burials are safe, legal and ecological, as are home funerals. Both practices have the potential to be less expensive, too, Webster said, which can be an important factor when a traditional funeral with “all the trimmings” can cost more than $15,000, more than the annual income of the average widower in New Hampshire, she said. But, people need to know that a $4 sheet is a valid alternative to a metal or exotic wood casket that might cost upwards of $4,000, she said.  

Why aren’t green burials and home funerals more common today? In part, it was due to an extremely successful campaign by the funeral industry beginning after the Civil War, Webster said. By the 1950s through the 1970s, “everything had reached this apex of materialism around funerals,” she said, putting funerals in the hands of funeral homes, purchasing expensive caskets and vaults and embalming relatives.

“People were buying it completely because it was part of the American Dream,” at least in white, middle-class New England society, she said.

“It was a show of wealth,” she said, one that has begun to resonate less in New Hampshire society today.

However, the midcentury standard for funerals and interment left many people with an incomplete understanding of their options when a loved one dies, Webster wrote in an essay titled “Why Caring For Our Own Dead Is an Act of Social Justice.”

“They assume that they are ‘allowed’ time with the deceased, not that they are in charge, and that others have some authority to dictate the amount of time they can spend, where, and how,” she wrote. Webster’s organization, New Hampshire Funeral Resources, Education, and Advocacy, and Threshold Care, which LaFleur and DiMasi belong to, are two local organizations dedicated to educating people about end-of-life care, home funerals and green burials.

“We need to talk about death more; we need to be more present for each other when we’re dying,” Peterborough resident Laurel Boyd said, a sentiment echoed by her fellow Threshold Care members. Boyd works for Hand to Heart, a nonprofit that provides massage and compassionate touch to cancer and hospice patients, and she has cared for several people at the end of their lives. They said it felt safer to know there is somebody there and holding space for them, Boyd said.

“They feel seen as a human being, with someone really trying to be present with them. For me, it’s a real honor to be able to do that,” she said.

“People think it’s morbid to talk about death,” DiMasi said, but “when we shut off that conversation, we lose a lot of what it means to be human.” There are practical reasons to talk about death with a loved one, she said, like making sure any religious rites performed are in line with their wishes, or even just to know where they keep their passwords. Deaths can be planned for just like people plan for births and weddings, she said. The conversations can help you understand your loved one’s priorities and concerns, and better equip you to advocate on their behalf at the end of their life, she said.

“If you know that you want to be in a place with someone at a certain time, go make arrangements as best as you can,” she said. “And then your family will know. They will be much better able to advocate for you if they know what the heck you want.”


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