Although Maine has some requirements for backyard burials, the law is relatively lax. The property owner must first establish a family burial ground by writing up a description of the land designated for the cemetery and recording it with the town clerk or the county's register of deeds.
It's not necessary to hire a surveyor to determine the boundaries of the parcel, said Chuck Lakin, a home funeral educator from Waterville. The description could be as simple as: "The 100-by-100-foot plot in the northeast corner of the property marked by four stakes."
The boundaries of the burial ground must be marked, by a fence or otherwise, state law says.
The burial ground can be no bigger than a quarter-acre. It must be set back at least 100 feet from a house or land used for recreation and at least 200 feet from a water well used for domestic purposes. Construction or excavation cannot be done within 25 feet of a burial ground.
Anyone who establishes a family burial ground owns that land in perpetuity, once someone is buried there. Even if the land around it is sold, family members of those buried have an easement to walk from the nearest public road directly to the burial ground. Occasionally, families agree to move graves when they sell land with family burial grounds, said Jim Fernald, spokesman for the Maine Funeral Directors Association.
Lakin suggests checking with the local code enforcement officer to determine whether the community has zoning or other regulations that restrict the location of a family cemetery.
Municipal zoning and code enforcement officials in Greater Portland said this week that they aren't sure how their departments would handle a request for a burial ground on private property.
Marge Schmuckal, Portland's zoning administrator, pointed to the city's land use ordinance, which allows cemeteries in several residential zones as a conditional use approved by the Zoning Board of Appeals. She said she's never heard of anyone wanting to start a family burial ground in the city.
Gorham allows cemeteries as special exceptions in its suburban residential and rural zones. Town officials said a private cemetery hasn't been proposed there in at least 20 years.
Pat Doucette, director of code enforcement in South Portland, said that if a request for a family burial ground came to her office, she'd use the state law as her guide. "There's nothing that prohibits it," she said.
Other states that mention family cemeteries in their laws include Florida, where they must be smaller than two acres, and Michigan, where they must be outside city limits.
California and Washington require cemetery licenses for burials on private property, along with fees of $400 and $300, respectively.
-- Staff Writer Leslie Bridgers