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Green Graveyards: A Natural Way to Go

In lovely woods just outside the tiny town of Westminster, S.C., discreetly scattered among the tall pines and poplars, are 20 graves, many hand-dug by Billy Campbell.

The graves, mounds of earth dotted with wildflowers and bathed in dappled sunlight, are marked with flat stones engraved with the names of the dead—from a rock-ribbed Southern Baptist to a gentle New Age hippie.

Campbell, the town's only doctor, is an ardent environmentalist. He buries patients, friends and strangers—without embalming them—in biodegradable caskets, or in no caskets at all, in the nature preserve he created along Ramsey Creek.

The burials are legal and meet all state regulations and health requirements. But in the beginning, many in this conservative town of 2,700 people were skeptical, even angry, about the Ramsey Creek Preserve, where the dead protect the land of the living.

"We weren't doing anything weird or outlandish," Campbell says, "but people accused us of throwing bodies in the creek or laying them out for buzzards to eat." He recalls one irate woman, apparently convinced of the bodies-in-the-creek rumor, who "told me I was a rich doctor who could buy bottled water, but she would have to drink my dead men's soup."

In the six years since the burial ground opened, Westminster has come, slowly but surely, to accept it. And now, Campbell's idea—nurtured in the backwoods of South Carolina—is spreading to rich, trendy Marin County, Calif.

Campbell, 49, and his new partner Tyler Cassity—a 34-year old entrepreneur who owns cemeteries in three states—are scheduled to open the new burial preserve this summer on a hillside in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Campbell says he and Cassity hope to work with conservation groups to open similar natural burial grounds across the country, each crisscrossed—like Ramsey Creek—with hiking trails. "What we are doing is basically land conservation," Campbell says. "By setting aside a woods for natural burials, we preserve it from development. At the same time, I think we put death in its rightful place, as part of the cycle of life. Our burials honor the idea of dust to dust."

At Ramsey Creek, burial in a simple casket costs about $2,300. The National Funeral Directors Association says the average conventional funeral costs about $6,500. That includes mortuary services, embalming, a casket and a cement vault or box for the casket, which is often required for a cemetery burial. A cemetery plot adds even more to the cost.

"The mortuary-cemetery business is a $20-billion-a-year industry, and if we could get just 10 percent of that," Campbell says, "we'd have $2 billion a year going toward land conservation on memorial preserves where people could picnic, hike or take nature classes."

A native of Westminster—his family's roots here go back to the Revolutionary War—Campbell studied to be an ecologist, then switched to medicine. Soft-spoken and wry, Campbell concedes he's a bit of an eccentric, but then "small Southern towns are good places for eccentrics," he says. Westminster, after all, was home to the Guns, Cabinets and Nightcrawlers store, "and I think that's a whole lot stranger than Ramsey Creek," he laughs.

The folksy, erudite doctor and the hip young businessman who owns Hollywood Forever, a celebrity cemetery where Rudolph Valentino and Cecil B. DeMille are buried, believe they have the potential to revolutionize the funeral industry and conserve a million acres of land over the next 30 years.

Campbell and Cassity, who has been a consultant to HBO's television series Six Feet Under, think the idea of burials that protect, rather than consume, green space will appeal to boomers, including those who want their cremated ashes scattered or buried. In Marin County, they plan to designate three of the site's 32 acres for interments and conserve the rest.

In place of the perpetual care fund of the conventional cemetery, "where money is set aside to mow the grass and battle back any natural growth," Campbell says, funds in memorial preserves will be used to restore the land.

Campbell's Ramsey Creek—the first "green" burial site in America—has inspired another in Florida, and a third has recently opened in Texas.

Campbell remembers that when his father died, he wanted to bury him in a simple, dignified biodegradable wood box. But his father was buried in the only wood box the funeral home offered—an eye-popping, ornate oak casket the funeral director assured him was the same model that held actor Dan Blocker, who played Hoss Cartwright on the TV hit Bonanza.

"You know, I didn't take any real comfort in that," Campbell says.

Over the years Campbell has spoken to environmental groups, birdwatchers and native-plant associations and found that "the idea of the preserve resonates with a lot of very different people" who aren't all young, liberal environmentalists.

"Ramsey Creek is unusual. It's different. And people will talk," says Jerry Smith, the owner of Moon's Drug Store & Gift Shop on Main Street. "But I think it's fantastic, myself."

Indeed, what is New Age and cutting edge to some is simply old-fashioned common sense to others. Sherrill Hughes, who lives in Westminster, buried her husband Rowland in Ramsey Creek Preserve with his favorite country music playing.

"Nobody would call him an environmental person," Hughes says. "Rowland grew up hard in West Virginia, and he liked plain and simple. He was a good provider, but he didn't like to waste money." When Rowland said he wanted to be buried in a plain pine box, Hughes says she told him she didn't think they did that anymore. "Then," she says, "my daughter heard about Ramsey Creek."

Campbell and his wife, Kimberly, can tell the story of everyone buried in Ramsey Creek—from the stillborn baby Hope, the first burial on the site, to the interior decorator who left instructions for an elaborate funeral with black-plumed horses to be led by Kimberly. "His relatives nixed that, though," Campbell says. "They said, 'Those horses bite, and we can't take any chances.' "

Kimberly operates the Ramsey Creek business from a room in Billy Campbell's Foothills Family Medicine office on Main Street. He treats the patients, she sells the gravesites. "Billy doesn't discuss Ramsey Creek during medical appointments," Kimberly says.

Twenty people are already buried at Ramsey Creek, and 50 other families, some from as far away as California and New York, have bought plots there.

Campbell says when he first announced the opening of his green cemetery in 1998, the local newspaper referred to it as "tree-hugger heaven," and the local funeral director—a man he grew up with—tried to get the state authorities to shut it down. "Now, several funeral homes work with us to help store or transport bodies to Ramsey Creek," Campbell says.

Bob Fells, a spokesman for the International Cemetery and Funeral Association, says the industry is always open to new ideas. "Many cemeteries," he says, "have undeveloped acreage. So it would be easy to leave the trees and rocks and dedicate that area as a green cemetery that follows the rules for green burials. We're all about consumer choice."

Campbell's company, Memorial Ecosystems, sets aside 25 percent of the Ramsey Creek burial price for conservation and for development projects like nature classes and plant surveys. It's a for-profit company, and "so far, we're about breaking even," he says. "But as word spreads, people come, and we are growing."

Jim Nichols, a computer software salesman from Greenville, S.C., buried his younger brother Chris in Ramsey Creek after the 28-year-old died of cancer in May. "Chris was what you might call a hippie, and he was very conscious of the environment," Nichols says. "When he was dying, he said he wanted to be buried here."

Standing in front of the grave, listening to the sounds of the birds and the rushing creek, Nichols recalls, "My father and I were leery, but the first time we came out here, we knew it was right for Chris. It's beautiful and peaceful. It's full of life, not death."

When he died they buried Chris in a coffin his father had made, wrapped in quilts sewn by his great-grandmothers. His dog Briar was at the graveside, along with 70 friends and family members.

"Now, my wife and I, my parents and my two uncles all plan to be buried here," Nichols says. "Ramsey Creek changed our minds about burials and death."

For black-and-white reprints of this article call (800) 635-7181, ext. 8158.

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