The Ben & Jerry's of burial grounds

Environment: Inspired by the socially conscious ice cream company, a S. Carolina doctor starts an eco-friendly cemetery.

August 19, 2002|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WESTMINSTER, S.C. - Dr. Billy Campbell hopes to do for cemeteries what others did for ice cream: take a familiar product, give it a social conscience and sell it to the save-the-planet crowd.

"We want to be the Ben & Jerry's of death," Campbell said the other day, smiling from behind his desk in this blue-collar town of 2,700. He is only half-joking.

Down the road is his prototype, 32 acres of sloping woods that Campbell advertises as the country's first "green" cemetery.

The bodies at Ramsey Creek Preserve are laid to rest beneath clusters of dogwood and oak and across meadows of wildflowers. Nature trails mosey through the trees. Graves are marked, if at all, with geologically correct stones so flat they disappear among the grasses.

Memorial Ecosystems Inc., Campbell's company, forbids embalming fluids, vaults or grave liners - they slow natural decomposition and pollute the earth, he says. Instead, bodies are buried in shrouds or in caskets made of cardboard or nonendangered wood. The watchword is biodegradable.

A cemetery brochure opens with a gentle reminder from the Book of Genesis about ashes and dust. If that doesn't move customers, there are secular quotations from the likes of Wendell Berry, Walt Whitman and Shakespeare. Five percent of the cemetery's gross receipts goes to a nonprofit foundation that fights water pollution.

Campbell, a 46-year-old physician, sees graying baby boomers as the chief market for Ramsey Creek and for franchises he hopes to open across the country. Green cemeteries, he says, are a new frontier for land conservation. They preserve large tracts from development with money from people unlikely to contribute to groups such as the Nature Conservancy but willing to pay a couple grand, he says, to "bury Momma."

And like a certain pair of shaggy-haired men from Vermont, he glimpses another shade of green. "Maybe we can make money," he says, "by convincing yuppies that this is a Zen Buddhist experience."

But there are snags. For one, not many yuppies live in Westminster, a town of mill workers, Confederate flag-flying pickup trucks and storefront "faith worship centers." It sits snugly in the state's northwest corner, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a few miles from where the movie Deliverance was filmed.

The only real tourist draw is a yearly apple festival, though no apples grow in the town.

When Campbell opened the cemetery in September 1998, rumors swept through the streets with the same din as the Southern Crescent trains that rumble past Main Street.

"People really had this idea," Campbell recalls, "that we were throwing bodies into the creek, like this was the Ganges or something."

Public relations weren't helped much when his brother nicknamed the place Buzzard Acres. A woman in town called to complain that rotting bodies would turn the creek into "old dead man soup."

None of this surprises Vera M. Duke, the town's 80-year-old mayor. She plans to meet her maker the old-fashioned way.

"To be quite honest with you," she says, "people in this town go for the old methods. They like to go and sit in the funeral home for two hours, and everybody brings food, and they have a big funeral after the wake.

"I don't believe local people have accepted it as well as people from a distance."

Jackie Smith, a waitress at Waters, a diner, was blunter. "The one who buries people in cardboard boxes? Oh, my God, the man's a lunatic!"

The town's only doctor

Campbell grew up in Westminster. His mother runs a furniture store here. But he went to college in Atlanta and to medical school in Charleston and came back different.

He wears a gold hoop earring, reads The Whole Earth Catalog and plays Grateful Dead CDs in his sputtering two-tone 1956 Chevy. One reason he gets away with it might be that he is Westminster's only doctor.

"In a small town, if you're not going down to the front of a Baptist church and rededicating your life to Christ at least once a month, you're a little different," he says. "It doesn't bug me."

The woodland burial movement, as some call it, has taken off in the United Kingdom. About 140 eco-cemeteries have sprung up since the first opened nearly a decade ago. They range from elegantly landscaped parklands with swipe-card entry systems to farm fields where sheep resume grazing after the hearses leave.

But it has yet to take root in the United States. Land for traditional burials remains plentiful, experts say, and the viewing of embalmed bodies at wakes is a cultural fixture. Advocates for green burials also blame the U.S. funeral home industry, which profits from casket sales and has powerful lobbies in state capitals and Washington.

While some rural families and neopagan groups perform green burials on their land, Ramsey Creek Preserve appears to be the only secular commercial operation marketed to the public at large.

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