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Gary King [photo courtesy King family]
Gary King [photo courtesy King family]

Greening the Afterlife, Part III: a resting place at home

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When we think of the death of a family member, we usually think of cemeteries and funeral parlors. But some people are taking burial home. Home burial is legal in both New York and Vermont. In New York, however, a licensed funeral director has to be involved. In our series, "Greening the Afterlife," we've met a Vermont woman who wants to be buried behind her home. And we've heard from a carpenter who builds biodegradable wooden coffins. You can hear those stories and watch slide shows of them on our website, ncpr.org. In part 3 of the series, Angela Evancie introduces us to a Vermont family who already buried a husband and father on their own property.

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Gary King of Sheldon, Vermont always knew exactly how he wanted to be buried.

Jeremiah: It wasn’t something he always talked about, but definitely if you knew him, he would bring up the whole idea of just being dropped off in the woods – yep, let the coy dogs eat ‘em was the kind of idea – or if he had to, because of law, he was just going to be buried in a regular pine casket.

That’s Gary’s son, Jeremiah.  His wife, Debbie, recalls how Gary had always favored natural processes to chemical ones.

Debbie: When I met him, he always thought pesticides and herbicides were the wrong way to go about things for a sustainable lifestyle…This was back 30 years ago when people were laughing at crazy hippies.

He went back, way way back, in terms of always being concerned about what he was doing in respect to the earth.

Gary spent more than thirty years wheelchair bound from a motorcycle accident.  In 2008, he was diagnosed with leukemia.  When he died last year, Debbie and Jeremiah knew exactly what to do.

Debbie: We knew we had to move quickly.  We got all our paperwork filled in, his doctor filled out the death certificate, and um, then our neighbor had a backhoe and volunteered to come up and dig the grave. 

Debbie: We were really lucky that year; the ground hadn’t frozen yet.  When I called my neighbor with a backhoe, I said, “What do you think? Are we going to be able to dig?” And he said “Oh yeah, my rigs will get through it.”  He had some pretty big heavy equipment, and it sliced through that just like it was spring of the year.

Debbie: [pointing to the site] It’s kind of up that way, where the meadow is, and around the bend. 

Debbie and Jeremiah lead me up to the site.  We pass through a small meadow and arrive in an open field with views of the Green Mountains.  Gary is buried at the edge of the tree line.  There’s no head stone.  It looks more like a garden than a gravesite.

Debbie:  Those little pansy-like flowers – we used to call ‘em Johnny Jump Ups – Gary likes, he always liked those and they after a while will volunteer on their own.  We’ve got some thyme there.  He liked thyme – all kinds of thymes too.  And the begonias...those were flowers he liked. 

We didn’t have the usual wake, and all those things, which was just easier to handle.  We could think, reflect, talk to people but without that formality of a wake.  I just couldn’t handle a wake, to be honest with you. 

So what we decided to do was a have memorial on his birthday in May, where we would then have people come up, it would be spring, they could go to the gravesite.  You know, we thought our thoughts, and we said our words, and then we sang Gary’s favorite song, that was ‘Hobo’s Lullaby.’

Many of the people who were there that day are now rethinking their own plans.

Debbie: And there was just so many people that have said ‘That’s exactly how I want to be buried.  I want to be buried on my land, or my husband wants to be buried on our land, what do we need to do?’

Home burial is legal here in Vermont, and in New York.  But it’s an option many people don’t know about, or think is too hard to carry out.  For the Kings, it was as easy as filling out a death certificate and making a trip to the town clerk’s office.

Debbie: I’m really grateful for our town clerk and our town, for respecting the wishes of people, and really honoring, or valuing the piece that you could really be connected with the land where you live, and that that’s where you really need to be buried, on that spot.

The longer we spend at the site, the more stories Debbie and Jeremiah share about Gary.  There was the time he put earthworms in Debbie’s mother’s garden to improve the soil, much to the horror of his mother-in-law.  Then there was the day that Gary went out to chop down a tree.  It fell the wrong way.  Gary had to bail out of his wheelchair to avoid getting crushed.  It’s like being here helps Debbie and Jeremiah remember Gary more vividly.

Jeremiah: You don’t need a headstone to announce the world who you are, or what you did – you never could even put it down in words.  It’s by your actions it’s what you do when you’re alive and how people remember you.  The fact that we all don’t last forever doesn’t matter that much. You know we all do what we can and as long as we do our bit to make the world a little better, our life was worth it. 

Gary’s old wheelchair is up here, mostly because Gary’s dog, Claire, still finds his scent on it.  Debbie says there was a sense of control and order in the process of burying her husband that he didn’t have in life.

Debbie: In life he had a lot of challenges and things that he had to face.  Things didn’t go as smoothly as they do for many people.  And yet in death it was like all of his wishes just fell through – I mean everything fell in place.

Debbie and Jeremiah and Gary’s twin brother are all planning on being buried near Gary.  They’ll have to go through a few more steps to change the site from a one-person burial plot to a family cemetery.  In the meantime, they’re enjoying having Gary close by.

Debbie: Had we put him in a cemetery somewhere, I wouldn’t have- he would have been – I don’t know how to explain this – he would have been somewhere else that wasn’t part of our lives.  Right now he’s in a place that’s part of our lives, it’s kind of like the  complete cycle.

And because the site is beautiful it’s not depressing.  It’s very restful and peaceful and healing.

Note: Gary King’s simple pine coffin was built by Richard Winter, who was profiled earlier in this series.

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