Scituate couple wins OK for a backyard burial

Scituate couple wins OK for a backyard burial

Richard Gordon, of Scituate, and his wife, Debra Gordon, not photographed, have won approval from the Scituate Town Council to be buried in their backyard. (Valley Breeze & Observer photo by Elise Manahan)
Though healthy now, the Gordons look ahead to remaining at home forever

SCITUATE - Richard and Debra Gordon have won Town Council approval to be buried in their own back yard at 563 Trimtown Road when they die, a personal choice rare for Rhode Island but reportedly on the rise elsewhere.

The Gordons join what experts suggest is an increasing number of people choosing home burials over traditional funerals. Oddly enough, federal and state laws have little to say about home burials, which in Rhode Island are left to the complete control of local authorities.

The Town Council at its June 13 meeting approved establishment of a private burial ground for two graves on the 4.3-acre lot owned by the Gordons. The former Warwick residents, in their late 60s and in good health, say they simply have come to love the land where they've lived for the past 25 years.

"We cannot think of a more peaceful and appropriate place to be buried than in the corner of the grassy field, beneath the pine tree by the big rock, when the inevitable time comes," the couple said in a letter to the council.

"While we have always enjoyed the peaceful country setting that our property provides, as well as the historic charm of our (circa 1810) home," they continued, "it's the memories of so many family gatherings around the dining table, the wonderful holidays, our daughter's marriage in the backyard ... (that made us realize) we simply don't ever want to leave this special piece of land."

The council approved the request on a 5-2 vote in favor, with Councilors David Hanna Jr. and William Hurry Jr. abstaining because they are concerned about a plethora of cemeteries around town and the cost of maintaining them.

"I'm opposed to the proliferation of grave sites all over town," Hurry said. Hanna noted the town now budgets $7,500 a year to take care of cemeteries. "I don't want to see the town end up with the responsibility of having another cemetery to maintain," he said. Town officials said local Scouts often end up doing such work for free as part of their badge requirements.

In response to questions from the council, the Gordons said they are not concerned about devaluation of their property because they have three grown children who, they expect, will inherit the property someday.

Suppose, Hanna asked, a future owner of the property wanted to put a swimming pool where their graves are?

"We'll be dust by then," Gordon replied. "I can't imagine that happening. They could move the pool a few feet away."

This was not the first request of its kind in Scituate. Town resident Thomas Angell, chairman of the town Conservation Commission, was given permission to establish a private cemetery on his property a little over a year ago. No one is buried there yet, said Angell, who was present at the June 13 meeting for another matter.

State law on home burials is almost silent, saying only that cities and towns may prohibit graves in overly-populated areas. A spokeswoman at the state Department of Health confirmed that state law places authority for home burials fully with cities and towns. The DOH has no data on the number of private burials in the state, she said.

Scituate has no ordinances addressing home burials. Rather than add more regulations, Town Solicitor David D'Agostino said, he and the council prefer to have petitioners come before the council for approval.

"We don't get involved in specifying anything about caskets or vaults," he said.

Karen Hanson, a member of the Rhode Island chapter of the national Funeral Consumers Alliance (FCA), a nonprofit with 40,000 members nationwide, in a phone interview told The Valley Breeze & Observer, "tons of people" are using home burials in states like New Hampshire and Vermont.

But in Rhode Island, "it's very unusual," she said, perhaps because of the state's small size.

"I do sense a trend where more and more people are trying to return to prior forms of handling death, with more and more families wanting to take care of their loved ones who have died."

Nationally, the FCA in 2012 reported fielding only a miniscule six to 12 home burial questions a year. But the group also reported 45 organizations or individuals (known as "death midwives") assisting with private funerals in 2009, an increase from the mere two support groups registered in 2002, according to reports in the New York Times and MSN Money.

Like Rhode Island, most states have no special laws to regulate home burials, but six states including Connecticut and New York require a funeral director to handle the remains.

The Gordons were relieved to receive the council's approval.

"This gives us true piece of mind," Richard Gordon said. He is employed as a management consultant in the hospitality industry and his wife, Debra, is a speech language pathologist in the public school system.

Besides the home burial, Richard said the couple also do not want to be embalmed.

Although they acknowledge substantial savings resulting from a home burial and the added environmental safety of foregoing funerary chemicals, the Gordons say neither is the major reason why they want to be buried at home.

It's all about their personal attachment to a place they love.

Voting in favor of the Gordons' request were Charles Collins Jr., president, John Winfield Jr., who is a mortician, Kathleen Knight-Bianchi, David A. D'Agostino and Brenda Frederickson.