Vt. Creamery Diversifies Into Crematory (By ANNE WALLACE ALLEN, Associated Press Writer)
GUILFORD, Vt. - Just up the hill from the Gaines' dairy farm stands a small building that looks a lot like a sugar shack, the kind of thing many Vermont farmers rely on to supplement their income. But this one-story building houses a human crematory run by a couple of former back-to-the-landers who say they want to provide a personalized end-of-life service. The owners, Jim and Ellen Curley, say their new venture is a small family business that will provide options to the community and will help the Gaines' seventh-generation dairy farm survive. "I view it as a service to my generation and the older generation," said Jim Curley, 54. "We're a low-volume small scale operation with a beautiful setting."
End-of-life services are big business in Vermont and elsewhere. Funeral homes and burial businesses abound, but cremation is a growing choice. About 40 percent of Vermonters choose cremation, according to the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a national trade group based in South Burlington. Nationally, the number is 25 percent. The Curleys were looking for a family business when they got the idea of opening the crematory. First, they asked their neighbors, the Gaines, if they could use a wooded spot of land across the road from pasture. The Gaines said yes.
"We've had a lot of people ask us to do different things here over the years," said Jackie Gaines, who lives on the farm and runs a dog boarding business there. "Someone wanted to put a warehouse-type of building up; someone wanted to put a building for storage up." The Gaines farm has about 200 acres in Vermont and Massachusetts where the family milks 65 cows; grows hay, corn and alfalfa; and runs a maple sugar operation. With milk prices hitting a 25-year low last year, all dairy farms look for other ways to stay afloat and the Gaines saw Vermont Blessings as one of those ways. "The town was concerned with the aesthetic part of a crematory in town, and how that would fit in," said Jackie Gaines. "I told them that it would generate some income for us which would enable us to continue to keep this land as a farm intact for the next generation."
And while the notion of a crematory on the farm elicited some startled jokes from relatives and passers-by, the farm family was not deterred. "Having a lot of animals, we do come in contact with death," said Gaines. The result: a neat, rectangular building just up a dirt road in the woods close to Route 5 as it approaches the Massachusetts border. Across the road, there are cows in large fields. Inside the building is the large machine known in the business as a "retort" where bodies are cremated at 1,750 degrees and sent into the air as vapor. They've done one cremation so far.
The Curleys' crematory is the seventh in Vermont, including one in nearby Brattleboro that, like Vermont Blessings, allows families to skip the funeral home and the charges that go along with it and contract directly with the crematory for the service. Another in St. Johnsbury also allows that. The Curleys want to capitalize on the market in nearby western Massachusetts, which has a much lower cremation rate than Vermont's. Vermont Blessings plans to woo customers with promises of scenery, privacy, and personal service.
"At Vermont Blessings we consider cremation a sacred occasion and have designed our facility and services accordingly," says the company's ad in the local newspaper. "Our small-scale unhurried approach offers the most personalized and reverent cremation available." The ad tells prospective customers that Vermont Blessings will work with a funeral home or, as Vermont law allows, will work directly with families.
At some crematories, many cremations are done in a day; Vermont Blessings promises to do no more than two a day. "It makes a difference psychologically, to me," said Jim Curley, who has a doctorate in education. "If I was going to choose cremation for my mother, the thought of her being up at the industrial park, or down in a line, was appalling to me." Vermont funeral homes offer cremation for as much as $2,200 and as little as $650. Vermont Blessings charges $1,200 to pick up the body, complete the necessary paperwork, do the cremation, and return a container of ashes.
"Actually they offer the same type of service I offer," said Paul Guare, funeral director at Guare & Sons Funeral Home in Montpelier. Funeral homes also offer embalming and memorial services. Jim Curley is working to obtain a funeral director's license so he can offer the memorial services as well, though he has no intention of doing embalming.
Lisa Carlson, a longtime advocate for funeral consumers who lives in Hinesburg, agrees with the Curleys that the baby boomers are likely to want a cremation option for their parents that's simple and down-to-earth. "Consumers do want better control of the funeral experience," said Carlson, who runs a group called the Funeral Ethics Organization. "If you look at the boomer generation that blended families in new ways, demanded the right for natural childbirth, may have written their own wedding vows, made us recycle they want to take charge of critical life events."