It’s widely known that Portland faces a shortage of available space to house its residents. But it’s also true that Portlanders are running out of space underground as well.
There are roughly as many people buried in Evergreen Cemetery as there are living in the city. But space for traditional burial spots is running out there, and the other city cemeteries are full. With efforts for a possible expansion at Evergreen tied up in City Hall, a question arises: what will happen to future Portlanders when they die?
Evergreen Cemetery, the 239-acre burial ground on Stevens Ave. is considered one of the city’s most historic places. Founded in 1854, about 65,000 people are buried there.
Mike Ciamaga, the city’s cemetery director, proposed two plans to the Historic Preservation Board this month, with two plans to create around 700 new traditional burial lots in the piece of land toward the front of Evergreen off of Stevens Avenue — land which Evergreen already owns. Officials are discussing whether the expansion fits the historic standards of the area.
The last expansion came in 2015. Evergreen still can accommodate other burial forms, like cremation with interment in a columbarium, and smaller burial lots that would work for burying an urn.
But for traditional casket burials, space in the only active city-owned cemetery is at a premium. Once the few dozen remaining lots have been sold, the city will have to turn people away.
“We’re in a time crunch,” Ciamaga said in an interview. “We only have 20 to 30 lots left.”
The 700 new burial lots would set up Evergreen for another eight to 10 years, Ciamaga said.
There are 23 cemeteries in Portland, according to the website findagrave.com, a website referenced by Ciamaga which allows the public to search cemetery public records. Some, like the Eastern and Western cemeteries, are city-owned and inactive, meaning full. Others are not city-owned, such as Grand Trunk and Stroudwater. Ciamaga has 10 under his supervision.
“A lot of people think we have a lot of land to play with,” Ciamaga explained, “but this is the last substantial area of land we have. This is pretty much it, and we need to get it right, and get it right this year.”
His hope is to fasttrack a new option to get before the Historic Preservation Board in April, and go out to bid as soon as they get approval. The board and city staff have disagreed which of Ciamaga’s two plans was a better fit, so he’s developing a third.
Robert O’Brien, who chairs the board, said while its members favor Ciamaga’s second option – which featured a more “meandering” layout – city staff prefer the first, which had a more “managerial” approach, meaning the burial plots were more tightly organized to maximize the number of plots the city could have.
“We’re cognizant of the needs of both sides of the issue,” O’Brien told the Phoenix. “We hope we can come up with a remedy that can meet the managerial needs but is also compatible with historic sections of the park.”
The board received two written complaints against the proposed expansion, including Michael Mertaugh, the former president of Friends of Evergreen Cemetery and former Parks Commission Chair.
In the letter, Mertaugh wrote that while he favored the managerial proposal, his “serious concern” was with gravesite density in both plans, saying the goal of maximizing density was not consistent with the master development plan for the cemetery. He suggested other suitable sites for expansion, such as land that currently houses a community garden, and options for “niche burials” like scatter gardens, which are designated areas to spread ashes, and the columbarium, which is a place such as a building for interment of ashes.
Representatives from Friends of Evergreen Cemetery declined to comment, saying they have not formally discussed either plan presented by the city.
GOING GREEN FOREVER
Evergreen Cemetery’s concern for dwindling space is becoming a common one among those in the cemetery services and death care industry. That concern, some industry experts say, has given rise to another option — “green burials,” a process by which people are not embalmed before burial, and buried without a traditional casket or cement vault.
Their appeal owes to two factors, primarily. They are often much less expensive than conventional burials, and have environmental benefits, too, bypassing the need for non-biodegradable elements to be put in the ground.
But they still require land. A green burial wouldn’t alleviate Evergreen’s dwindling space issues, as you’d still need the same plot of land to conduct a burial. And many of its proponents are interested because it more easily and formally allows them to be buried on their own land.
According to the Green Burial Council, a nonprofit organization that advocates for natural burials, green burials are growing in popularity. In their most recent report from 2021, there was a 21-percent increase in green burial cemeteries in the U.S. and Canada, up to 340 of them. They also reported a 20-percent increase in Green Burial Council-certified cemeteries, funeral homes and products, up to 323.
Cedar Brook Burial Ground in Limington was the first green burial cemetery in Maine. Joyce Foley, a founder and vice president of Cedar Brook, considers herself fortunate to be an early adapter of the trend. As she sees it, green burials are not all that different from standard methods.
“You have the same size grave. The only thing is you’re not embalmed or in a fancy coffin,” Foley said. “It’s a simpler process.”
Whereas a traditional burial can cost thousands of dollars, Cedar Brook charges $800 for a single lot, with lower costs for veterans and discounts for spouses or family members. They also offer a feature most cemeteries don’t, allowing people to be buried with their pets.
Cedar Brook is one of only three green burial grounds in Maine, with others in Freeport and Fayette. But as community cemeteries eventually run into space issues, more could be cropping up.
Chuck Lakin, a research librarian at Colby College, also uses his time as a “home funeral educator,” meeting with people to talk through alternatives to conventional funerals, like the process of dying at home or being buried on one’s own land. For many, the interest in green burials begins there.
Lakin, who lives in Waterville, has lately seen more interest in alternatives than conventional burials. He begins his process by talking to families when a dying person is still alive, helping to equip them to handle end-of-life processes at home. The process helps the family “come to terms” with the loss in a concrete way.
He said the process of establishing a site for a home burial isn’t that complicated. According to Maine state law, to establish a family burial ground, a person must work with their municipality to set aside no more than a quarter of an acre of land that is enclosed with a fence. Should the property ever be sold, statute mandates an easement be established to allow family members to visit the cemetery.
The only major requirement for a family burial ground is that it can’t exceed more than a quarter of an acre, and has to be set aside visually.
Tyler Keniston, an operations manager for Baldwin Hill Cemetery, said that the business was opened in 2021 with green burials in mind. They operate a “conservation cemetery” in a partnership with the Kennebec Land Trust, and there are 80 acres of land conserved in that partnership. Since they opened, Baldwin Hill has sold 108 lots for green burials, but have only had six burials so far.
Like Foley, he said the environmental impact is a major draw, since these reduce the “unnecessary components” that hurt the environment.
“From my sense it comes down to people wanting to return their body to the earth, the nutrients that go into the soil,” he said.
For now, however, traditional methods are still the primary ones. Not everyone is sold on the notion that green or natural burials are any more popular than they once were.
Julie Ann Johnson, a funeral director at Conroy-Tully Walker Funeral Homes, has only done one green burial in the past 18 months, in Freeport. She recognizes some increase in popularity around the country, but says the green process is “still fairly new.”
Chris Stilkey, a superintendent for the Burr Cemetery, said while they offer green burials, it’s a tiny fraction of what they see. He wishes more clients were serious about it, but at least in Maine, the trend isn’t as popular as it’s made out to be, Stilkey said.
“I manage 16 cemeteries,” he said. “For every 100 burials or cremations I do, I do one green burial.”
He also notes that while it may seem novel, the practice of what is now known as a green burial
is not exactly new. It’s more of a return to basics.
“It’s just we haven’t used it since we started using power equipment (to dig),” Stilkey said.