If nothing else, it’s a conversation starter. You can’t contemplate a bill titled “An Act to Permit the Conduct of Open Air Cremation at Designated Scattering Sites” without running headlong into questions that sooner or later confront us all.

As in, when my time comes, what kind of departure do I want? Open casket? Closed casket? Skip the casket and head straight for the nearest crematory?

“There are a lot of people who want what would be considered conventional options – and that’s beautiful,” Angela Lutzenberger said in an interview. “But this just happens to be one that works for a small number of people.”

Lutzenberger, an interfaith hospice minister from Brunswick, is the founder of Good Ground, Great Beyond, a nonprofit dedicated to making Maine the second state in the nation, behind Colorado, to permit open-air cremations.

The group has its sights set on a 63-acre, wooded tract in the midcoast town of Dresden that Lutzenberger purchased two years ago. But if that doesn’t work out – she has only begun to gauge how her neighbors feel about it – the bill would allow an open-air funeral pyre on nonprofit-owned property no smaller than 20 acres.

“I’m not here to barge into anybody’s space and force a thing that makes them feel uncomfortable,” Lutzenberger said. “That’s in no way where I’m coming from.”


Rather, she is motivated by her sense that the common aftermath to a person’s death – call the funeral home and let them take it from there – doesn’t work for all Mainers. Open-air cremation, as Lutzenberger says in a video on her group’s website, “allows a different kind of deep and acute contemplation of what death is and what it means to let go.”

I remember my first real brush with death. My beloved grandfather, felled by a heart attack when I was 11, lay there in his casket at an Irish Catholic wake and all I could think was how he looked nothing like the Gramp I’d adored my entire young life.

Back in the mid-1960s, at least for us Catholics, there were no choices – they simply closed the casket and lowered you into the ground. Then on the Last Day, as the nuns taught us, you’d push open the lid and walk out along with all the rest of the dead people to welcome Jesus back to Earth.

But alas, upon joining the Boy Scouts, I learned “The Hearse Song.” One lyric – The worms go in and the worms go out, the worms play pinochle on your snout – stopped me cold.

“Hold on a second,” I thought. “With all those worms going in and out, exactly what will I look like when I rise from the grave? Will I even want to be seen in public?”

Half a century later, cremation has become the preferred method for dispatch to the hereafter. (Even the Vatican allows it, although the pope still doesn’t want us to scatter our ashes.)


Here in Maine, according to the Cremation Association of North America, we ranked fifth in the country for cremations in 2018 – 76.9 percent of Mainers who passed that year were reduced to ashes rather than buried whole.

Yet, that raises another dilemma: Three members of my immediate family have been cremated in the last 20 years – and each time I’ve cringed at the thought of their lifeless bodies being loaded into a furnace by some stranger who hadn’t a clue who they were or how they lived and how they died.

Which brings me to my best encounter with death – at least so far. My father-in-law, who passed in 2006, lived with his wife on a mountainside in Idaho. They had a large outdoor deck where Jim loved to lay back in his lounge chair on sunny afternoons and stare at the clouds, naming each by its shape as it came over the nearby ridge.

Jim was cremated the traditional way after he died. On the day of his memorial service, we paid tribute to him in the front yard and then hopped aboard a fleet of ATV’s and 4-wheel drives and rode up to the ridgetop.

Moments later, a small airplane appeared, piloted by one of Jim’s buddies. In the passenger seat sat Jim’s stepdaughter, who gently poured his ashes out the window just as they passed overhead.

The ashes formed a small cloud – the only one in the sky. Propelled by a light summer breeze, it drifted out over the house – and Jim’s deck – while we all watched in awe.


“Look,” my wife said softly through her tears. “Dad’s a cloud.”

I can’t say whether a funeral pyre would have added to or detracted from that memorable day – I suspect some in Jim’s old-school crowd would have whipped out their cellphones and called 911. But I’ll never forget that cloud and how fitting it felt to see him not in the ground, but up in the air, floating above us all.

Avant-garde as it may sound, open-air cremation is by no means new. The Norsemen did it 1,000 years ago, as did the Romans in the second century. And funeral pyres burn to this day in India, where they’re commonplace, and in Colorado, home to the Crestone End of Life Project.

As Lutzenberger nudges her project forward here in Maine – the bill, L.D. 1074, will be heard by the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee on April 8 – she’s already heard all the jokes about the fiery sendoffs for the Vikings of old and the Jedi of Star Wars fame.

But as a Buddhist, she strongly believes that open-air cremation need not be just a punchline. Nor should it necessarily repel us – considering how often we already burn our loved ones’ remains in some far-off, nondescript “crematory chamber.”

“I have had conversations with people who, when I first mention it, gave me the hairy eyeball,” Lutzenberger said. “Then, once I talked to them about it, it only takes a matter of minutes for their whole facial expression to change. And they say, ‘Oh, I get what you’re saying. Of course people should have that option. That makes sense.’”

Some undoubtedly will disagree. But as I sit here pondering what I’ll want done with my old bones, the idea of a funeral pyre isn’t the worst thing that comes to mind.

That would be the worms and their endless game of pinochle.

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