The Ramsey Creek Preserve, as enthusiasts of natural burial know, is the first -- and until recently only -- green cemetery in the United States.
On a trip down to Georgia last week, I stopped off in tiny Westminster, South Carolina, to tour Ramsey Creek's leafy grounds for the first time since visiting some four summers ago and coming away with the germ of an idea that would become Grave Matters.
I found it looking even more beautiful and -- for that final rest -- more inviting than I'd remembered.
The somewhat utilitarian signpost at the entrance had been replaced with a rugged boulder bounded on two sides by rock pillars, the cemetery's name and founding date etched into the boulder's smooth face. And the weather-beaten chapel, which owners Billy and Kimberley Campbell had saved from demolition and installed at the head of the main cemetery trail, boasted fresh clapboard siding and a small porch.
What impressed me most, though, was the burial ground itself. Now the site of dozens of additional burials, the pine forest that is the Ramsey Creek cemetery had retained its natural character, remaining more nature preserve than graveyard. As before, I had trouble identifying most of the graves that skirt the trail running through the preserve. The minimal graves still blend so seamlessly into the landscape that they’re largely inconspicuous, and remain free of the usual dross of the modern cemetery -- the plastic flowers, pottery vases, crepe displays -- I'd frankly expected to find here.
Not surprisingly, I guess, my short walk brought me to Billy Campbell, who was digging a grave on a break from seeing patients at his family practice. He'd just started turfing off the top layer of dirt and depositing it onto a tarp beside the grave, the first step in an ecologically-sensitive excavation strategy Billy describes in the book.
Green burial has come a long way since Billy dug that first grave at Ramsey Creek in the fall of 1998 and, with it, launched a movement. What at the time struck many as a quirky idea whose appeal would be limited to granola crunchers, green burial is now reaching into the mainstream. A summer issue of People magazine devoted four pages to the Campbells' approach to burial, sandwiched between stories of Matthew McConaughey's bachelorhood and Paris Hilton's meltdown in rehab. A Canadian film crew was in the woods scouting out shots during my walk; a photographer from the Chicago Tribune would follow days later.
The media is here because it recognizes that green burial isn't just about the environment. As the Campbells have long argued, it also represents an embrace of old-fashioned American values of simplicity, thrift, and self-sufficiency that continue to have widespread currency. And far from being quirky or bizarre, natural burial is little more than a return to a once common practice in this country, a default burial that has served humanity for thousands of years.
As the green burial movement grows and matures, it can look to Ramsey Creek as a model of the best of what green burial has to offer: A thriving, natural green where the dead can return to and rejoin the elements as directly and simply as possible and, in the process, perpetuate the cycles of life that sustain all life. More than that, this pine forest in the wilds of South Carolina provides a compelling strategy for preserving land from development and returning it to ecological health.