Back-to-the-Land, Six Feet Under

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Memorial Day 1968, four dozen years ago, I stood on this hill among peach trees in full bloom, gazing with my friends into the distance.
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Contact your state’s health department for more information on local home burial ordinances where you live.

Thanksgiving 2015, the first since my husband’s death, we climb the hill to offer him the last cider of the season. Our granddaughter pours the libation around the homemade grave, on creeping thyme, heather, and love-in-a-mist. Richard Coutant, a small-town lawyer, historian, photographer, traveler, builder of bicycles, loved the orchard and tended the trees until cancer overwhelmed him. This has been a banner year for apples: Pound Sweets and Baldwins hang on the trees in late November. Family and friends keep showing up to turn the press. We can’t stop crushing this tart, sweet fruit. Or boiling cider down to jelly so strong it stings.

Memorial Day 1968, four dozen years ago, I stood on this hill among peach trees in full bloom, gazing with my friends into the distance. The great northern forest was the closest neighbor. That suited us. Fresh from the riots in Washington, D.C., we envisioned a future on these acres, its open fields, woods, rickety house, barn, and outbuildings. At 23, I wanted to live my life as a poem right here, in a loving community.

Sudden Eden

For that pinkish haze across the orchard,

ten thousand blossoms on a widow’s peak,

we forsook the Revolution and bought the farm.

The widow Rosie Franklin held our mortgage. We were her Social Security for ten years: $26,000, hard earned. The locals, rumor had it, thought “the hippies got taken,” but we were as pleased with Rosie’s 1937 Home Comfort wood kitchen range as she was with her all-electric apartment in town. She told us that Forest, her husband, had collapsed in front of that very stove. Winters were hard: the two of them, alone in the drafty house, a few cows in their stanchions, no other families on the last-plowed, winding dirt road.

She said Forest was gifted; he could fix any engine, but he’d never wanted to farm. His last truck was parked in the garage we’d turn into a living room for eight or ten of us, with a stage for plays.

Rosie must have been about 70, as I am now, when she buried Forest and left. Though she missed her peaches and the pippins “at the end of the mowing,” she never considered staying on.

On this rock which arches up

like the backbone on some animal,

the face of which we may never know,

I vow to love you.

I’d marriedthe land, and a band of friends, before my man. Richard Coutant was an urbane rustic: witty, erudite, old-fashioned. When we met in 1978, I had a 5-year-old daughter, Oona. They loved each other. He showed us slides of East Bethel: the octagonal one-room school he’d attended, his father’s failing general store embedded in snow, his sister and him decked out for Easter in the crazy clothes his mother sewed. When he unpacked his books, the floorboards bowed.

Richard missed the early days on the commune, but he fit right into Total Loss Farm, a haven for writers, artists, actors, and tillers of the soil. I remember him impersonating Ethan Allen, threatening to lay our rebellious Guilford “as low as Sodom and Gomorrah, by God.”

We married on bedrock in the front yard. A year-and-a-half later, on Richard’s birthday in 1981, after a jolting truck ride in mud season, I gave birth to another daughter, Emily. When his job as a “public-sector bureaucrat” running the Comprehensive Employment and Training Program ended, he happily stayed home with the baby while I plied my trade.

Richard brought a fleet of old Saabs to graft together in the dooryard. Our daughter imitated the two stroke racket. He kept the farm tractor, a 1949 Fordson Super-Dexta, running until he died. Even in the hard years when we lived apart and later divorced, Richard came home to tinker and mow.

Set down your roots and roam.

There’s no place like home.

I live where Rosie Franklin did. Richard and I tore down her house in 1989, and had a new one built, probably the third house on that stone foundation. During the 1990s, friends drifted away; the commune evolved into a land trust. Thirty households: family, commune alumni, and intimate friends, surround me. They are at the heart of this story.

May Day 2014, Richard and I remarried at our annual spring gathering, 35 years after our first wedding. From the chuppah, a wedding canopy, to the icing on the cake, our friends provided everything but the weather and the tent that sheltered us from it. Two hundred guests danced around the maypole on the hill, weaving our fates together. Sipping cava, we sang, and called out the names of our ancestors, the recent dead.

Footloose, giddy, Richard and I traveled to islands: North Haven in June, Crete in November, Dominica the following March. In the tropics, Richard felt suddenly weak. We figured it was the heat.

In April 2015, the diagnosis: metastatic pancreatic cancer, stage 4. Brittle syllables. Richard said, “At least, I can stop practicing law.” Life morphed into illness. Nothing made sense but the note from a friend: “We are old trees. Things grow in us.” I pictured the great northern tooth fungus rotting the heart of a hedgerow maple. A stiff wind could snap its trunk.

On May Day 2015, with little mention of Richard’s symptoms, we read our vows again: “I will share the joys and sorrows of growing old by your side.” I saw the word W-I-D-O-W spelled out in the trees. We changed course from chemotherapy to comfort measures only. Peonies scented the bedroom. I memorized his presence and rarely left. Neighbors sustained us, sent meals, mopped, installed handrails on the stairway, mowed, phoned news, prayed.

Though frail, Richard’s life force was astonishing; his language, poetic: “Never should you be anywhere near far from me.” His advance directive, written years before, called for cremation. He was a “no-soul man.” What difference did a body make? I refused. Too many incinerated Jews. Consider the splendid cemeteries on our travels. We will found our own: plant you here and you’ll never leave. We chose the spot near the maypole. I loved how he’d cut the field and come back happy, smelling of diesel fuel. Unable to fend off death, our people would summon a gallant response.

June 7, 2015, Sunday at dawn, 47 days from his diagnosis, Richard stopped breathing. Gloria, our oncology nurse, and his sister, Christopher, had eased him through the last crisis while I slept: my first span of rest since his diagnosis. I rose at 3 a.m., perched on the windowsill, watched, and wished him bon voyage, lying with all my might. Then bouquets from the garden replaced medical chaos. A photograph of a last kiss. Stillness.

Most states in the Northeast allow home burial, though specific requirements must be met. “Family cemeteries are an American tradition, and many Vermonters are proud to own such land,” according to the Vermont Department of Health website, which includes a brochure entitled Digging Deep, Unearthing the Mysteries of Burial and Cemetery Law. This cheerful guide, compiled by the Secretary of State’s office, lists all the necessary steps, which include drawing a map of the burial site and recording it in the town records, submitting a death certificate to the town clerk and receiving a burial transit permit, and meeting appropriate setbacks.

“Peach Orchard Hill Cemetery” Eric recorded in our deed, though the peaches had died in an ice storm decades ago. Carolyn, a doctor, entered the death certificate data online. Harry dug the grave with his backhoe: his first for a human. He encountered no stones. He brought 2x4s and ropes for lowering. Gilbert, who’d baked our wedding cake, fashioned a trundling board instead of a coffin: $75 for
shiplap boards; soft boat ropes to spare the pallbearers’ hands.

Nodding to Jewish tradition, Linda bought fine linen for the shroud, and downloaded instructions for folding. My sister Evelyn sewed the pieces. When we wrapped him, Emily added his Red Sox cap and a baby blanket. When all was ready, Jeremy drove his truck up the hill, carrying the pallbearers and his late best friend. Climbing after him, we noticed Jeremy had mown hearts in the grass all the way the grave.

Backed by wind, my sister sang Rachmaninoff’s Vocalese. Richard was eased down and festooned with grave goods: his antique Roleiflex, his lefty baseball glove, his hairbrush, a handgun, a Lonely Planet guide to Barcelona. Sadie read “Ten Good Things about Grandpa:” bacon, swearing, me. The Mourner’s Kaddish. I picked up a shovel. The concertina squeezed out spritely tunes as 10 of us shoveled half-an hour, leveling the ground, lightening our grief.

I fell for you the way apples topple to a tarp:

soft landing, syncopated laughter.

Love is the wave from spring to cider:

flesh to blessing, ripe to keep.

A Note to Readers: Reviewing Bernd Heinrich’s Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death for Northern Woodlands, I learned how all living beings nourish each other in death, except “civilized” people. Our “green burial” made sense, and the continuity of care nurtured our community. While grieving, we savor our days more deeply.

A Google search for “Home Burial” leads to Robert Frost’s bleak, brilliant poem about the unraveling of a marriage following an infant’s death. Further cyber-digging turns up practical information and passionate testimonials from those who have taken death into their own hands. The Funeral Consumers Alliance, a national advocacy organization for choosing “a meaningful, dignified, affordable funeral,” provides information on home burials through their local affiliates. The National Funeral Alliance is a nonprofit with a mission to “educate the public to their choices and provide clear information about all things relating to home funerals.” Contact your state’s health department for more information on local home burial ordinances where you live. — Verandah Porche

Poet Verandah Porche’s books include Sudden Eden and The Body’s Symmetry. Reprinted from Northern Woodlands (Spring 2016), a quarterly magazine that offers a new way of looking at the forest.

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