LEBANON – The burial came up in conversation as Donald Lovely played cribbage with his father, Edward, who had been diagnosed with lung cancer in late October.
“He said, ‘I’d prefer to be on your land, but I don’t think you’ll be able to get that done in time,’” Donald Lovely said of the talk one afternoon last month on his parents’ porch. “I had no idea that Dad would go as quickly as he did.”
Edward Lovely was laid to rest Saturday on a wooded hill on his son’s land – in the first grave in a cemetery where, one day, as many as 24 family members could be buried.
Such home burials are part of a recent national trend, in which more people are choosing to handle the deaths of family members themselves, for a more intimate experience, said Chuck Lakin of Waterville, who gives talks statewide on how to plan a home funeral.
Although Edward Lovely’s family got help from a funeral home for the memorial service and burial, the sentiment behind keeping his body on the family’s land reflects that trend.
“There’s a closeness to it, I think,” said Lovely’s widow, Janice Lovely.
The state’s only requirement for a burial on private property is that a family burial ground be established first. That’s done by filing a description of the land with the town clerk or the county’s register of deeds.
A family cemetery cannot be bigger than a quarter-acre, and its boundaries must be marked. Lakin said local zoning in some towns and cities may apply. “Other than that, it’s easy.”
OLD BURIAL GROUND, NEW IDEA
The 50-acre parcel that Donald Lovely and his wife, Lorrie, bought in 1993 to build their home on includes an old burial ground for the Gerrish family. Not far into the woods from the Lovelys’ driveway, about a dozen slabs of stone, dating back to 1850, jut from the ground at various angles.
The burial ground gave the Lovelys the idea for a cemetery for their own family.
About five years ago, Donald Lovely sent letters to his eight siblings asking if they were interested in being buried together on the land, about four miles from their childhood home.
“They said, ‘Oh, it sounds neat,’ and then it sort of fell off the table,” Lovely said.
A few weeks after 81-year-old Edward Lovely learned that his longtime cough was from cancer, his daughter-in-law called the surveyor she had hired when they bought the land and an attorney she found in the phone book.
“I just wanted to make sure it was done so it didn’t weigh heavy on us,” Donald Lovely said of planning for the family cemetery.
Edward Lovely died on Nov. 24, a month after his diagnosis and two days before he was scheduled to start chemotherapy. The 20-year Navy veteran could have gotten a plot at the veterans cemetery that opened two years ago in nearby Springvale.
Instead, his children spent last week cutting down trees and raking up leaves to clear the way for the Lovely Family Cemetery and give their father the burial he wanted.
The funeral home arranged for a grave digger, Gary Withey of Cornish, to bring his backhoe to the property early Saturday morning, just before the funeral.
“It seems like, more and more as word gets out, there are people doing it,” Withey said of backyard cemeteries. He said he’s done about a half-dozen home burials this year.
MORE ABOUT CUSTOM THAN LAW
The state Department of Health and Human Services used to register family burial grounds through its Division of Environmental Health, until a couple of years ago, when a review of the state statute on cemetery regulations revealed that there was no such requirement.
As to how people are buried on their own property, the state has no rules.
“Everybody’s familiar with the phrase ’6 feet under,’ but it’s custom, not law,” said James Jacobsen, a project manager for the DHHS subsurface wastewater team, which licenses cemeteries.
When the state registered family burial grounds, Jacobsen said, it typically registered about 18 to 20 a year, with little variation.
“I still get a lot of inquiries about it, so I presume it’s holding steady,” Jacobsen said last week. “This week I’ve already had three.”
The Carll-Heald & Black Funeral Home in Springvale handles a couple of home burials in western York County every year. Funeral director Dan Guillemette said the arrangements he made for Edward Lovely were no different from those for any burial in a rural cemetery.
“It’s not the most common thing we do, but it happens here and there,” he said.
FOR THE LOVELYS, A LEGACY
The New York Times published a story in 2009 about the national trend toward more home funerals, attributing it, in part, to cost savings.
Josh Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, said there are no statistics to document the trend — the evidence is in the number of phone calls his group gets and the number of people who have jobs assisting with home funerals.
Home funerals aren’t always accompanied by home burials, he said, but the same type of people are often interested in both.
Lakin said the savings can be significant, but that’s not usually the reason for home funerals or burials.
After paying the surveyor and attorney, the Lovelys will probably spend more to have the burial at their home. In the future, they might save money by using their backhoe to dig the graves — something they didn’t feel they could do this time, Lorrie Lovely said.
“It’s just too close timewise, and, too … yeah,” she said.
Saving money was never the Lovelys’ motive for starting the cemetery. Since the days when Donald Lovely and his siblings were small enough to squish together on the benches at their dinner table, they have believed that taking care of family comes first.
And, by granting their father’s final wish, they can celebrate the start of something new, said Donald Lovely’s brother Darren.
“It will be the beginning of a legacy,” he said.
THE RIGHT RESTING PLACE
About 100 people gathered on the property Saturday for the burial. Pallbearers carried Edward Lovely’s flag-draped coffin over ground covered with a dusting of snow.
Standing in a semicircle around the grave, people huddled against the cold as snow fell lightly and Pastor Mark Kraines of First Parish Congregational Church in Lebanon called people to prayer.
“Heavenly father, we thank you for the beauty of this moment,” Kraines said. “The snow falling, the woods, the family that is gathered here, the friends. We thank you for the beauty of Ed’s life.”
After Kraines read three passages from the Bible, Donald Lovely’s daughter Sarah walked to an iPod and started the song “Go Rest High on That Mountain” by Vince Gill. After the song, two friends of Edward Lovely fired three cannon shots, which echoed across the property.
A two-person naval ceremonial guard played “Taps,” folded the flag that had covered the casket and presented it to Janice Lovely, Edward’s widow.
After the ceremony, people walked slowly back to their cars and Withey lowered the casket into the ground. Before Withey started filling the grave with dirt, Donald Lovely returned to the grave to spend a moment with his father.
“He loved being in the woods and he loved his kids,” he said. “He’ll be surrounded by both of them now.”
– Staff Photographer Gregory Rec contributed to this report.
Staff Writer Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at: