Family Burial Plot: A Personal Account

By Donald J.

Teaching a class on “Dying and Death” at Smith College led me to think through my own end of life wishes, including what I want done to dispose of my body. I knew that I didn’t want a conventional burial managed by a funeral home and I certainly did not want my body to be embalmed. For a long time, I thought cremation would be the best alternative, until I learned how much energy is spent to burn a body. Green burial, with its commitment to ecological priorities, seemed an excellent choice but I still felt some hesitation about where that might occur. Fortunately, I have the good luck to own a beautiful property in a town that permits family burial plots; the land will be placed under conservation protection after my death. I could think of no better place for my body to complete its natural cycle.

Family burial plots were common in New England from early days. While there were cemeteries in towns and cities, farms often had space set aside for interning the dead. It is still legal in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to create a burial site on personal property providing it is allowed by local ordinances and regulations overseen by Boards of Health. So, my first step was to download the “Guidelines for Establishing a Family Burial Plot” from the web site for the Town of Conway’s Board of Health. The rules cover two issues: 1) does the proposed site comply with State and local requirements for setbacks from water sources, roads, buildings and private septic systems? and 2) is the proposed site free of geological features (ledge, bedrock, large boulders) and soil characteristics that would hinder a burial with at least three feet of dirt? If these issues are resolved with the certification of a Massachusetts DEP Soil Evaluator, then the last step is to modify the property plan to permanently mark the location of the burial plot. This revised plan is filed with the Registrar of Deeds and a copy provided to the Board of Health.

The expenses associated with this work are difficult to predict. For example, I had to hire a professional excavator to dig the mandatory test holes at the proposed site and when he hit ledge, we had to select two other locations before we were successful. The hourly labor and equipment cost resulted in a bill of $500. The state certified soil evaluator charged $250 to produce the report based on the test holes and the Board of Health charged $75 for their participation. I was lucky to have had a professional survey done of our property some time ago, which reduced the cost of having another surveyor come to establish the boundaries of the site with GPS coordinates and metal pins in the corners. The surveyor charged $820, which included the revised property map marking the new burial plot. There was a very modest fee when I brought the revised property plan to the Registry of Deeds; they also produced the copy I needed to give to Conway’s Board of Health. The bottom line was just over $1,600, but this could be higher or lower depending on variable costs of excavation and surveying.

From start to finish the process took several months, largely because of scheduling difficulties with the soil evaluator and surveyor. The last hurdle, to get the signed approval from the Board of Health, required submission of the reports and a statement about how the plot will be demarcated and maintained in the years to come. I was told that my permit was the first to have been issued in Conway for at least twenty years. Needless to say, it would not be possible to complete this process at or near the time of a death.

When the time comes, hopefully many years from now, I hope to die at home and to be placed in the simple pine coffin I built and have stored in my basement. My surviving kin will have to get a certification of death, without having my body transported, and that document will have to go to the Board of Health for permission to bury. It is my hope that family and friends will share the tasks of putting my body in the coffin, transporting it the short distance to the plot, digging the grave, lowering the coffin and covering it with soil. At that point I will rest in peace.

Family Burial Plot: A Personal Account
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