Jim Fernald, funeral director at Brookings-Smith, shows two different green funeral caskets. Wooden dowels are used rather than nails or screws in green caskets. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Environmentally friendly treatment of a body after it dies is garnering more interest in Maine these days. There are some passionate advocates for new, less environmentally harmful practices, but there are political, cultural and logistical challenges that could stand in the way of widespread change in the funeral industry.

Across the country, public health policies are wary about practices such as green burials and liquid cremation.

Caitlyn Hauke of New Hampshire is the vice president and board member of the Green Burial Council, a California-based advocacy group for more sustainable death practices. She said that many of the policies that make green burials and other sustainable methods of final disposition more difficult are the result of an outdated or misinformed understanding of death.

“I serve on the board of cemetery trustees for [Lebanon, New Hampshire], and some of the hang ups in trying to change municipal bylaws to allow green burial are these misconceptions that dead bodies spread disease, there’s going to be contamination of the ground and water and things that aren’t true,” Hauke said. “It’s hard to convince people that are set in their ways [that these things aren’t true].”

As an added challenge, Maine crematoriums are required to be located in a cemetery, according to Jim Fernald, spokesperson for the Maine Funeral Directors Association and funeral director of Brookings-Smith in Bangor. Crematoriums are also subject to restrictions in terms of size and licensing.

Some want to see that change though, allowing for more flexibility in how a body is handled after death. There is currently a bill before the Maine state legislature to consider reforming the liquid cremation rules to allow them to happen off-site of a cemetery.

Policy is one thing, but there is also the more challenging issue of shifting culture — specifically how people think — to look at death differently.

“Americans tend to avoid talking about death, you know,” said Chuck Lakin, a volunteer with the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Maine. “When they do, they get a lot of misinformation or they’ve heard things and they keep passing them around.”

Lakin runs a website called Last Things that provides information about what is and isn’t legal and safe when it comes to funeral options in Maine.

Still, it can be difficult to spread the word when death is such a taboo topic. Katie Riposta is the funeral director at Direct Cremation of Maine in Belfast, which conducts liquid cremations. She sees continued challenges with spreading the word about the various options available for final disposition.

“It’s hard to advertise because you have to find a professional and tacit way of letting people know there’s new information without seeming sales-y,” Riposta said. “We think the process is a very nice process for end of life final disposition, but some people don’t like to talk about that in advance. I would say the consumer knowledge in and around Maine is limited, [but] people are certainly becoming more educated.”

Even if consumers are aware of the sustainable options, these methods for final disposition require a significant amount of advance planning and advocating for your specific after-death wishes — much more so than a conventional funeral. If there is a sudden death and people don’t have the chance to plan a sustainable burial, their families will likely default to a more conventional, less sustainable option.

“When someone dies suddenly, people just stop thinking. They really need the help of professionals to guide them through,” Fernald said. “Making the green the default would be a much larger culture shift.”

Green death options in Maine are still very limited. Currently, there are only two designated green cemeteries in the state of Maine: Rainbow’s End Natural Cemetery in Orrington and Cedar Brook Burial Ground in Limington. Other cemeteries have designated areas for green burials.

Meanwhile, Direct Cremation of Maine is the only provider of liquid cremation for human remains, though policy shifts might open the door for more to open in the future.

“Green cremation is definitely an interesting process,” Riposta said. “We’ll see in the future how crematories are regulated as a whole and see where it goes from there.”

Funeral industry professionals are divided as to whether the green funeral movement will continue to grow in Maine. Fernald thinks that it will remain niche.

“Death and ritual is so individual based on previous death experiences and how you’re raised,” Fernald said. “When people are in an emotional part of their life, they go to things that are natural to them. If they were always raised to live off the land and all that, I would think [green burial] would be what they gravitate to during a time of loss.”

Awareness may be the most challenging element of the movement towards more sustainable funeral practices, but Hauke said that “the more people hear about it, the more interested they become.”

“The movement is growing thanks in part to the increased attention to the death positive movement that this is sort of opening doors to conversations about death that Americans have shied away from,” Hauke said.