December 5, 2012

For Maine man, final resting spot is a homecoming

Home burials date back to long ago, but some families are returning to tradition.

By Leslie Bridgers lbridgers@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

click image to enlarge

Pastor Mark Kraines, left, leads a burial service for Edward Lovely on Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012. Lovely was buried on the property of his son Don after being diagnosed with lung cancer in October and expressing his desire to be buried on Don's property.

Gregory Rec / Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

After the burial, Don Lovely spends a moment at the grave of his father, Edward Lovely.

Gregory Rec / Staff Photographer

Regulations on home burials are fairly simple in Maine

Most states have no laws regulating burials on private property, said Josh Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance. They leave it up to local officials.

Although Maine has some requirements for backyard burials, the law is relatively lax. The property owner must first establish a family burial ground by writing up a description of the land designated for the cemetery and recording it with the town clerk or the county's register of deeds.

It's not necessary to hire a surveyor to determine the boundaries of the parcel, said Chuck Lakin, a home funeral educator from Waterville. The description could be as simple as: "The 100-by-100-foot plot in the northeast corner of the property marked by four stakes."

The boundaries of the burial ground must be marked, by a fence or otherwise, state law says.

The burial ground can be no bigger than a quarter-acre. It must be set back at least 100 feet from a house or land used for recreation and at least 200 feet from a water well used for domestic purposes. Construction or excavation cannot be done within 25 feet of a burial ground.

Anyone who establishes a family burial ground owns that land in perpetuity, once someone is buried there. Even if the land around it is sold, family members of those buried have an easement to walk from the nearest public road directly to the burial ground. Occasionally, families agree to move graves when they sell land with family burial grounds, said Jim Fernald, spokesman for the Maine Funeral Directors Association.

Lakin suggests checking with the local code enforcement officer to determine whether the community has zoning or other regulations that restrict the location of a family cemetery.

Municipal zoning and code enforcement officials in Greater Portland said this week that they aren't sure how their departments would handle a request for a burial ground on private property.

Marge Schmuckal, Portland's zoning administrator, pointed to the city's land use ordinance, which allows cemeteries in several residential zones as a conditional use approved by the Zoning Board of Appeals. She said she's never heard of anyone wanting to start a family burial ground in the city.

Gorham allows cemeteries as special exceptions in its suburban residential and rural zones. Town officials said a private cemetery hasn't been proposed there in at least 20 years.

Pat Doucette, director of code enforcement in South Portland, said that if a request for a family burial ground came to her office, she'd use the state law as her guide. "There's nothing that prohibits it," she said.

Other states that mention family cemeteries in their laws include Florida, where they must be smaller than two acres, and Michigan, where they must be outside city limits.

California and Washington require cemetery licenses for burials on private property, along with fees of $400 and $300, respectively.

-- Staff Writer Leslie Bridgers

"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.

(Continued on page 2)

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