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`Green Burial' Movement Finds Roots In United States

Published: Dec 14, 2003

When it came time to bury his father, Billy Campbell wanted a plain pine box - no frills, no satin lining, no filigree. But the only wood casket at his local mortuary was a varnished beauty of Spanish oak that would have been suitable for the leader of a small republic. The funeral director pointed out it was the same model used by Dan Blocker - Hoss, of the old ``Bonanza'' television series - but to Campbell that was cold comfort.

An environmental activist and a small-town South Carolina physician, Campbell is a big believer in simplicity. To him, ``dust to dust'' does not include formaldehyde injections, fancy monuments or marble-finished burial vaults guaranteed to protect the deceased from dirt and moisture for a century or more. He had hoped his furniture-dealer father could simply become part of the earth instead of being gussied up as if to attend ``the great sales meeting in the sky,'' he said.

Nature-Friendly Burials

Eighteen years later, Billy Campbell is at the vanguard of the tiny but growing ``green burial'' movement in the United States. He is also the inspiration for a Los Angeles cemetery entrepreneur who is planning a nature-friendly burial ground that will be a haven for hikers as well as a home for those who have taken their final step.

The entrepreneur, Tyler Cassity, is the head of Forever Enterprises, which runs Hollywood Forever Memorial Park, the resting place for such film legends as Rudolph Valentino and Tyrone Power. His company owns seven other cemeteries, as well as a unit that does video biographies of the deceased for display in cemetery kiosks.

Cassity has purchased a suburban San Francisco cemetery with 20 pristine, wooded acres that will remain just that, even after graves are dug amid the trees. There will be no emerald-green lawn with row after row of monuments. New arrivals will not be embalmed. Some could be planted sans casket.

In a multiple use never envisioned by the U.S. Forest Service, hikers will meander down woodsy trails as others come to the end of theirs. With the deal recently concluded, Cassity plans to open his green burial ground next year.

Such cemeteries could give the dead a way of making a statement from the grave. Cassity sees them as prototypes for larger natural cemeteries in Southern California, where land preserved for the dead could be protected from suburban sprawl.

``This would give people a tangible way to put a permanent stop to that with their own bodies,'' he said. ``You would know that your death is a way of preserving a piece of this world forever in its natural state.''

A partner with Cassity in the pending venture, Campbell points to his Ramsey Creek Preserve as a model.

Amid the hardwood trees and longleaf pines on his 350 acres outside Westminster, S.C., two dozen families have buried their loved ones in shrouds, in biodegradable boxes of unfinished wood, and in nothing at all. The bodies are not embalmed. There are no burial vaults. There are no plastic flowers. Some graves are unmarked while others are unobtrusively topped with small, flat, inscribed stones.

``It's not a one-dimensional deathscape,'' Campbell said. ``It just looks mainly like the woods.''

The only doctor in a town of 2,300, Campbell treats patients in one part of his office and arranges burials in another, taking pains not to mix the two.

``This is the South,'' he said. ``We used to have a place here that sold tombstones and fireworks.''

The founder of a conservation group called South Carolina Forestwatch, Campbell speaks wistfully of the woods along Ramsey Creek. Wild turkeys and deer roam there, and a boy sometimes comes by to splash in the creek and visit his stillborn sister Hope. Death doesn't have to keep its sting, Campbell says; Ramsey Creek will be used for weddings, nature walks, art classes - anything that fits in a quiet, green corner of the land.

In his hometown, some of Campbell's clients are ardent environmentalists, but many are local people drawn by low prices and a pretty setting. One man was buried with country music blaring and friends tossing cigarettes in his grave. A neighbor who initially opposed the zoning for Ramsey Creek is buried there in his overalls.

Running Memorial Ecosystems Inc. with his wife, Kimberley, Campbell has conferred with proponents of ``woodland burial'' in Great Britain, where more than 180 sites have sprung up in the past 10 years. He also has been a guiding force for groups around the United States interested in open-space preservation and alternative burials.

The Florida Connection

In the panhandle of Florida, the Wilkerson brothers are trying to save the family farm by opening a part of it to the dead. In addition to grave sites, the Wilkersons offer homemade caskets that can be fitted with shelves and used as pre-death bedroom dressers.

``It's a plain-vanilla box,'' said John Wilkerson, who with his brother Bill grows a wild- turkey feed called chufa. ``We can make a casket on site from trees that grow on site and put people in the ground to provide nutrients for the trees.''

The Wilkersons' Glendale Preserve has yet to host its first burial, and the brothers don't have the $50,000 fee required by the state to sell spaces ``pre- need.'' Even so, John Wilkerson said, 30 to 50 prospective clients have made firm commitments to head his way when the Grim Reaper calls.

In Huntsville, Texas, George H. Russell, founder and bishop of the Universal Ethician Church, just opened an 81-acre swath of woods for family green burials. Graves must be dug with shovels instead of heavy equipment. Deceased horses and other large animals must be left out for ``sky burial'' by vultures before their remains are interred beside their owners'.

The dead ``will re-nurture the circle of life, fertilize the soil and provide a perpetual legacy to beauty,'' Russell said. ``It doesn't make sense to destroy rain forests by making mahogany coffins, or even worse, turn a person into a toxic pickle.''

Reasons For Going Green

In 2001, the average cost of a standard funeral was $5,180, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. At Ramsey Creek, burials run about half that.

Campbell says his environmental bent helps keep costs down. His digging equipment takes less fuel, and he doesn't spray his land with chemicals. Many cemeteries require that caskets be placed within sealed vaults that keep the surface of the lawn above them uniform for mowing, but at Ramsey Creek, vaults are taboo.

As in Orthodox Jewish and Muslim burials, embalming is forbidden at green-burial sites. Some advocates claim embalmed bodies pose a risk to water supplies, but neither the Environmental Protection Agency nor industry studies have shown that.

A practice started for Civil War officers who died in battle, embalming is not required by any state. It's done to preserve bodies for viewing and to disinfect them - a job Campbell says a good scrubbing will generally handle.

Groups working toward green burials have been organized in several states, but Mark Musgrove, president of the National Funeral Directors Association, doubted they would take off. For one thing, he said, many people prefer traditional cemeteries.

``These places are tailored and mowed and cared for,'' Musgrove said.

Besides, he said, people concerned about wasting precious space on Earth will opt for cremation.

But Forever Enterprises' Cassity said the cremation trend could cool as green burial grows.

``One of the things that motivates cremation is the thought that cemeteries are a waste of space,'' he said. ``This turns that on its head.''

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