He died on Thanksgiving eve. He was a coal miner’s son, an ex-Marine; there were days he drank too much. Plunking down a couple grand to help restore native forests—that’s not the sort of thing that would have crossed his mind. But because this sometimes difficult man wanted a simple end, he did just that when he chose a traditional burial: a plain pine box in a grave beneath a dogwood tree.
The body of Roland Hughes, 57 when he died, is nourishing the earth—helping turn a run-down cotton field back into a healthy forest. The chinquapin tree his family planted on his grave is just a slip of a thing, but it could still be there, stalwart and strong, when the inscription on the fieldstone that they laid atop his grave finally fades away.
His body, along with 14 others, is buried at the 32-acre Ramsey Creek Memorial Nature Preserve near Westminster, South Carolina. This is where Billy Campbell, a family doctor and avid conservationist who grew up a couple of miles away, is testing his new idea in ecological restoration—burials beneficial to both the land and our human relationship to it.
Campbell’s plan calls for graves scattered over six acres of the preserve—mostly in the old cotton field or the second-growth woods. Digging in these areas presents the opportunity to re-establish native species where invasive plants now hold sway. The remaining land will stay forever grave-free. Visitors who wander beyond the graves to lovely Ramsey Creek will find a forest abundant with wildflowers, including three endangered species.
"People who buy grave plots at Ramsey Creek," says Campbell, "are saying no to embalming, to frilly-satin-pillowed, steel-lined, hermetically sealed caskets, to having their bodies turned into Memory Pictures—to all that stuff that so many of us get persuaded to dump thousands of dollars into when death comes knocking on the door." Instead, they’re opting for commonsense burials where families can take charge if they want to. They can plan the service, lower the coffin or place the urn, fill in the grave.
Campbell has high hopes for what can be accomplished if his idea takes off across the country. "If just 10 percent of Americans opted for traditional burials in nature preserves, land conservation organizations could offer burials that were less expensive overall," he says. "Yet collectively they could pull in a billion or more each year in gross revenue."
Groups in Florida, California, Washington, Wisconsin, Ohio, and New York are working to begin memorial nature preserves of their own. John Wilkerson, a fifth-generation farmer with 350 acres on Florida’s Panhandle, is the furthest along. If the Florida Board of Funeral and Cemetery Services agrees, he and his eight partners hope to open their preserve late this fall.
"I’m no fern-sniffing tree hugger, but I want to do the right thing by the land," Wilkerson says.