Rest in Peace?
By Dr. Anthony Antolini
In recent weeks there have been two deaths that have impacted me. Arline Greenleaf, my mother-in-law, died on Palm Sunday morning at the age of 93 after a long period of decline. Her death was no surprise to the family and preparations had been made for it. And yet, now that she is gone, there have been a number of lessons learned that one would categorize as “I wish we’d known that.”
The other death was much more shocking. The Rev. Connie Chandler-Ward apparently had a stroke or some other medical emergency while driving that caused her to black out and veer into the rear wheels of a semi. She died at the scene. Obviously, there was no way to prepare for this tragedy.
Choosing Music for the Memorial Service
In both cases, as a music director, I am asked to provide music for a service and to attend to all the arrangements that the family requests as far as the music is concerned. I’ve decided to devote this month’s column to some of the things that we all ought to do before death, whenever it comes: suddenly and without warning or after a long life and period of decline. The people we make these arrangements for are usually the ones who are most deeply affected by the death. Relieving them of decisions when they are in shock and grief is a gift that they will appreciate when this stressful time comes.
Connie was not only an ordained (retired) priest who had founded the Greenfire Women’s Retreat Center in St. George, but also an active member of two local choral organizations – Down East Singers and Solace. For her service, both of these ensembles will sing and, because her death was sudden and unexpected, there is no way to prepare in advance unless she had left detailed instructions about what she wanted for her service. So far as I know, the relatives have not found such instructions so the music directors of both groups have planned repertoire that is appropriate but might not be what Connie really wanted.
In Arline’s case, we have a very different picture. She was a habitual annotator of books and keeper of lists. Although she didn’t fill out a form at St. John’s with instructions about what she wanted it was easy enough to find her hymnal and lists within it of hymns she loved. Some were even earmarked for her memorial service! She had also indicated that she loved hand bells and plans were made while she was still alive to have a small contingent of a local hand bell group play for her service. This has made planning the musical parts of the service not only easier but has removed the burden from her daughters of choosing music.
Thinking ahead about what to do with one’s remains is a touchy subject for most of us. But luckily, there is plenty of help available nowadays. A couple of years ago I joined the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Maine (FCA Maine). This organization, a part of a national network, does not advocate for any particular practice but is dedicated to providing up-to-date information about the options that exist for burial. Their address is PO Box 622, Brunswick, ME 04011-0622. E-mail is: firstname.lastname@example.org and their web address is: www.fcamaine.net. They also have a Facebook page. Telephone number: 207.558.2246. Their mission statement is: “We are a non-profit organization promoting simplicity, dignity and economy in funeral arrangements through advance planning.”
Here are some interesting things that you might not know about burial in the State of Maine. They appeared on a sign entitled “Did you know?” at the Common Ground Fair where I was a volunteer at their display last September:
•It IS legal to care for your own dead in your own home.
•It IS legal to bury a family member’s body on your own land.*
•You do NOT have to buy a casket from the funeral home that serves you.
•How much you spend on a funeral is NOT an indication of how much you care.
•The best way to pay for a funeral may NOT be through a pre-payment plan.
•There are few limits on what you can do with ashes, and there are some wild possibilities.† Basically, be discreet and respectful.
•A vault or grave liner is NOT required by law.
•You do NOT have to be embalmed.
•Embalming is NOT necessary to protect the public health.
•Metal caskets with sealed gaskets do NOT keep the body from decomposing.
You have options. Some examples are: using a green cemetery, alkaline hydrolysis instead of flame cremation, body donation, using a direct cremation service, and making the coffin yourself.
*After reading this I met with my attorney who confirmed that it is legal to be buried on your own land. However, Maine law requires that you create a legal burial plot with some clearly identifiable fence or small wall around it. The dimensions of the plot are specified by individual town laws. The reason for the demarcation of the burial plot is that it is permanent and if you sell your property the burial plot cannot be removed. Descendants of the deceased also have the right to visit the plot and keep it in order. For this reason, family burial plots need to be easily accessible (near a road or right of way).
†The “wild possibilities” for the ashes can be seen if one visits Direct Cremation of Maine in Belfast where they have a showroom of urns for the remains. Some of these are very beautiful and locally made. Others are designed to honor the deceased in some way, such as a ceramic golf ball. There are also urns made of Himalayan sea salt that are designed to dissolve into the earth without polluting it. There are “pillows” that are made of organic material that hold the remains and can be cast overboard at sea. They float away and dissolve.
Green burial is becoming more and more popular. This involves burial without embalming or cremation. The motivation for this movement is to eliminate the considerable amount of energy used in the cremation process or to avoid the ground pollution made by embalming fluid and metal caskets in a conventional cemetery. There are two green cemeteries in Maine and even more elsewhere. A recent symposium was held in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where they handed out bumper stickers entitled “Be a Tree.” The symposium was a daylong event whose goal was to promote green burial in Massachusetts and beyond. There were representatives from historic Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Mt. Auburn now offers natural burial. There was also a representative of the Natural Burial Council.
One of the topics covered at the symposium was “Strategies for including Natural Burials in Municipal Cemeteries” presented by representatives from the non-profit Green Burial Massachusetts, “going back to the way we used to do it.” This trend is coming to Maine in time. FCA Maine is hosting an event next month with leadership from land trusts in Maine to discuss natural burial. For more information on this topic visit the Green Burial Massachusetts website www.greenburialma.org.
Other Sources of Information
FCA Maine offers members access to other groups that provide a treasure trove of additional resources. Check out Last Things at www.lastthings.net. There is also the Funeral Consumers Alliance National organization that monitors the funeral industry and researches changes in laws. Check out www.funerals.org. Particularly interesting is People’s Memorial Association, based in Seattle. It was founded in 1939. The web address is www.peoplesmemorial.org. This organization voted to create the nation’s first cooperative funeral home, which is fully licensed and owned by its members.
FCA Maine also offers workshops around the state for those who want to devote a little time to this important subject. On Friday, 18 May from 9 AM to 4 PM there will be a showing of Six Feet Under: Funeral Choices followed by discussion, presented by Chuck Lakin and Nancy McAlley at the Town Hall in Stockton Springs. Advanced registration is required. Call for a seat 567-4147 (Stockton Springs Library) or e-mail Chuck at email@example.com
Here at St. John’s please don’t forget that we have a form that’s ready made for you to write down what you want for your memorial. It can be updated as frequently as you like. Your priest, your music director and, most of all, your relatives will thank you and love you for filling it out! Then you can rest in peace!
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of St. John Baptist. All rights reserved.
The Episcopal Church of St. John Baptist 200 Main St., Thomaston, Maine 04861
firstname.lastname@example.org (207) 354-8734 Sunday Services are at 8 am and 10 am
Office Hours: Tuesday through Friday 8:30 am - 12 noon