July 22, 2014

Crematorium, natural burial grounds proposed for St. George

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Unique project would accommodate do-it-yourself funerals

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

The town of St. George wants to attract development to 75 acres of land it owns. But is it ready for a one-of-a kind project that includes a crematorium and gives families a place to bury their loved ones without using a funeral home?

Lisa Carlson, a nationally recognized gadfly on the funeral industry and a Hinesburg resident, has proposed using roughly two-thirds of the land the tiny town owns in St. George Town Center to construct a garden park, crematorium and conference center. A nonprofit organization would be formed to manage the garden park, a natural area where bodies could be buried and ashes scattered.

Carlson’s business would operate the crematorium, leasing the facility to defray operating costs for the garden park. And a conference center would attract nonprofit organizations and perhaps provide space for civic functions.

Unusual proposal

She met with town officials last week to discuss her proposal. While not ruling out the idea, officials suggested it will take time to digest the details and decide if the unusual use is appropriate for a site that was intended for commercial development.

Tom Carlson, chairman of the St. George Selectboard and no relation to Lisa Carlson, said he is not squeamish about the prospect of his town hosting a crematorium. He is instead concerned about the project pushing out other potential uses.

“There needs to be a place for crematoriums in our world,” he said, adding that cremations and other alternatives to traditional burials are increasingly popular. “It’s the scale of the project that gives me pause.”

Marie Mastro, chairwoman of the Development Review Board, said the town first needs to complete an update of its Comprehensive Plan before considering such a major project.

“We told her cannot at this point decide to devote 50 acres of town-owned land to this project,” she said. “It’s such a significant part of the land we’re interested in developing.”

Lisa Carlson has not submitted formal plans for the proposal. Instead, she outlined how the facilities would work in a three-page letter to the town.

Her proposal suggests the town sell 50 acres to a nonprofit that would be formed to oversee the complex. Funding for the purchase could come from the Vermont Land Trust, which provides grants to keep land undeveloped. The town would use sale proceeds to pay for a road running through the land.

Residents would comprise the majority of the nonprofit’s governing board, which might also include a botanist or environmental planner.

The complex would include a garden park, a portion of which would be set aside for “natural” burials, which use a shroud or biodegradable casket to hold remains that are not embalmed. No tombstones or other monuments would be permitted. Instead, burials would be recorded using a global positioning device, and names of the deceased would be engraved on a small plaque placed on a “Wall of Remembrance.” Genealogical information would be posted on a Web site.

Carlson proposes to have the company she is forming lease about one acre of land for a crematorium and caretaker’s cottage. The lease would require the crematorium to pay as much as 40 percent of its proceeds as rent to the nonprofit, helping defray maintenance costs for the garden park.

The final part of the project would be a conference center. The facility, costing an estimated $1 million, could accommodate the many nonprofits doing business in Vermont and host civic groups and municipal functions. It would also generate revenue for the garden park’s upkeep.

Black sheep of the industry

Carlson said her goal is to provide low-cost burial services. Funeral home charges, which typically include a casket, burial vault and other fees, can range from $5,000 to $10,000. She figures the facility she proposes can offer cremations and natural burials for less than $1,000.

Though there are places to scatter ashes, Carlson said there is no public facility that allows both natural burials and cremations in Vermont, and few anywhere in the country. Truly low-cost burials are only available to rural residents, who under Vermont law can bury family members on their own land.

Carlson’s interest in the funeral industry began when her first husband, suffering from a chronic stomach ailment, committed suicide in 1981. She could not afford a full-service funeral or even a basic cremation through a funeral home. One mortician wanted to charge $700 for cremation.

She ended up buying a $60 cardboard casket and driving her husband’s body to a crematorium that charged $85.

Carlson vowed to learn more about the funeral industry and share what she found it with the public. She wrote a 640-page book titled “Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love” that outlined funeral laws of all 50 states.

She later branched out into consumer advocacy. She was a board member and executive director of Funeral Consumer’s Alliance and wrote a second book, “I Died Laughing: Funeral Education with a Light Touch.” She is currently executive director of the Funeral Ethics Organization.

“I’ve pretty much been the Ralph Nader of the funeral industry,” she said.

She said natural burials and do-it-yourself funerals are a logical extension of the natural childbirth and hospice movements. Though increasingly popular in Europe, natural burials are relatively uncommon in the U.S.

Carlson views funeral home services as a wasteful expenditure for families who are willing to handle their own arrangements. She thinks that even cremations, which comprise about 50 percent of Vermonters’ funeral arrangements, are too expensive, with prices from $1,200 to $2,400.

Carlson is taking a wait-and-see approach on her St. George proposal. In the meantime, she plans to complete plans to incorporate her new company. If St. George is unable to accommodate the project, she will consider other towns.

“It seems like an incredibly good fit for St. George,” she said. “In case it doesn’t work there, I’m sure I’ll do it somewhere else.”

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