But let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life… they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life, and that the grave has no victory, for it never fights. All is divine harmony. -John Muir from A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf
John Muir’s words illustrate the concept of the Ramsey Creek Preserve, a “green” burial ground located in South Carolina’s northwest corner, near the Blue Ridge mountains,
Founded in 1998 by family physician Billy Campbell and his wife Kimberley, Ramsey Creek Preserve is the first of its kind to be certified as a conservation burial ground by the Green Burial Council.
So far 80 people have been buried there and many more have purchased a spot in advance.
Why? According to Kimberley Campbell, there are several motivators. One is the wish not to be buried in a large, modern cemetery with their manicured lawns and plastic flowers. These are seen as “houses for the dead” with no connection to anything beyond their property line. The cemeteries also tend to be expensive and require heavy applications of lawn maintenance chemicals. So the question people ask, said Campbell, is whether it really is necessary “to spend money on an expensive box which will go into another box that will go in the ground.”
At Ramsey Creek, burial is cheaper, in the range of $2,500 to $5,000 compared to $11,000 to $15,000 for the standard American burial, according to Campbell. Profits help fund land conservation through Upstate Forever, a non-profit conservation group in South Carolina. The Campbells are stewards, keeping an inventory of plants and maintaining trails. Billy Campbell uses his science background and years of conservation, biology and ecology reading to make sure burials are done in a way that works with the land.
All burials at Ramsey Creek are unembalmed. Only plain wooden or cardboard cremation caskets or cloth shrouds are used. There are no vaults. Instead, bodies are literally allowed to return to the earth, “dust to dust.” Small, flat, natural markers can be used to mark the graves in areas where surface rocks occur naturally. Graves in other areas are unmarked but can be located by using a computerized system.
Initially many of the residents in Westminster, a small town, were shocked. Dr. Campbell is a native. Then a few were buried at Ramsey Creek. Their neighbors attended the funerals. Their own ministers officiated. Green burial didn’t seem so strange any more. They saw their own love of the land reflected in the work the Campbells are doing. Farmers have even been buried in their overalls.
“People have seen this is very close to their spiritual values,” Campbell said.
Green burials aren’t really new. Until around a century ago, most people were buried without embalming. Church members and neighbors dug the graves. Some opted for cemeteries next to their churches. Others were buried in smaller family cemeteries.
Today, parents and their grown children often live in different states. Churches have gotten bigger and often don’t have cemeteries.
While funeral homes call what they do a “traditional funeral” and Ramsey Creek is seen as alternative, Campbell is turning the tables.
“We are traditional or neo-traditional,” she said. Campbell says her advocacy for families has caused some funeral directors to literally curse her. While other’s in the industry have worked well with Ramsey Creek.
“It’s legal to take care of our own dead,” she said. “The only thing a funeral director is licensed to do is embalm.”
Bodies can either be stored at a hospital morgue or held on dry ice. Friends and family can be received at home. Family members are often surprised to learn that they can either transport their own dead, even across state lines, or a funeral home can be contracted. Caskets don’t have to come from a funeral home. An individual in Westminster makes them and some folks have built their own.
Campbell is seeing a trend in consumers questioning the role funeral homes play. She attributes this in part to the Baby Boom generation dealing with both their own parents’ deaths and the funeral industry. When her father-in-law died, she watched the funeral director try to manipulate her husband when he asked that a vault not be used.
“Billy, dirt and water will seep in. Think how your mother will feel about that,” the funeral director said. Vaults are not legally required in many states, including South Carolina. No state requires embalming.
The Internet is empowering consumers who want options beyond what funeral homes offer. The Funeral Consumer Alliance has seen a dramatic rise in membership. Green burials and families caring for the dead are an extension of the Hospice movement which allowed the dying to spend their last days at home, Campbell believes.
Washing and dressing the body, taking it to the burial ground, helping lower it into the ground and then shoveling the dirt over it gives families a chance to care one last time for their loved one. Campbell sees people doubt their ability to do it but with encouragement and support they find the strength to get past their fear.
“It completes their process of care, love , respect,” she said. “It helps with healing and closure.” Because families are often too busy, staff typically dig the grave but once they‘ve gotten to Ramsey Creek, the frantic activity has slowed.
“It’s absolutely magical to see the change in people when they come to a service and then when they leave,” Campbell said.
They often tell her the woods and meadows give them peace and comfort. Knowing they can return to the preserve to both visit the grave and walk the trails helps too.
One little boy calls it visiting “Hope’s place.” His elder, still-born sister Hope was the first person to be buried at Ramsey Creek. The family has seen turkey and deer on their visits to the preserve and the boy plays in the creek. Kimberley Campbell calls it “an honor” to be part of the burials and to care for the preserve. She says the land has a intimacy and peacefulness.
“A sense of something you can’t explain,” Campbell calls it. “It’s not a place of sorrow all the time, there’s a balance with other experiences.”
Along with the local residents who have buried their dead at Ramsey Creek, others have come from coastal South Carolina, neighboring North Carolina and Georgia and as far away as California. All ages have been buried there.
One woman flew herself and her rabbi along with her deceased husband’s body from Boston to Ramsey Creek. The simple casket and active participation of mourners in filling the grave are part of Jewish tradition. This man was buried in a separate Jewish section of the cemetery in keeping with a more strict religious observance. Other Jews have opted for the other more general part of Ramsey Creek.
Billy Campbell took part of his inspiration for the preserve from the Fore people of New Guinea. Their burial grounds are known as “spirit forest.” Because no one enters these forests except for burials they’ve remained undeveloped.
Ramsey Creek is different in that people visit not just for burials. Birding and wild flower groups have hiked the preserves eight trails. The couple are also working with the Monastery of the Holy Spirit to help the Catholic order build a green cemetery on part of a 2,000-acre tract it owns near Conyers, S.C. Campbell says the project reflects their emphasis on land stewardship and contemplation.
Before there were neo-traditional green burials, cremation was an option for the environmentally conscious. While a crematorium does take some energy to run and there is the danger of releasing mercury from dental fillings into the air, cremation is better than embalming, according to Campbell. However it doesn’t do anything to actively save land. Along with the conservation easement, the families of those buried at Ramsey Creek have an emotional tie to the land.
Campbell’s says her feelings of responsibility to the land have increased as more people have been buried. They are grateful for those first families who chose and trusted them.
“Their legacy, through their death, made this happen,” Campbell said.
Green burial information on the Web:
Ramsey Creek Preserve - memorialecosystems.com
Green Burial Council - greenburialcouncil.org
An independent, nonprofit encouraging ethical and sustainable practices in the deathcare industry, and use of the burial process for ecological restoration and landscape conservation.
Final Passages - finalpassages.org
An organization dedicated to bringing back the home funeral - not unlike the hospice movement in the 1970’s that brought dying back home. .
Funeral Consumers Alliance - funerals.org
The Alliance provides information on funeral planning from a consumer’s standpoint.