Most Americans will undergo a standardized funerary ritual: embalming to slow decomposition, placement in a sleek coffin, and burial in a manicured graveyard, marked by a slab of granite or marble.
Cremation has been an alternative for years, but another option is gaining ground: eco-burial.
Instead of being laid to rest in traditional memorial parks, eco-burials (or natural burials or green burials) place remains in nature parks designed for two purposes: care of the dead, and care of the wildlands.
A leading company in this endeavor is Memorial Ecosystems, owned by Billy and Kimberly Campbell of Westminster, S.C.
“The traditional way is very sterile and doesn’t always suit the values or lifestyle of the individual,” said Mrs. Campbell in the Greenville News. “People are looking for more intimate, unique ways.”
Burials by Memorial Ecosystems eschew embalming, permanent vaults and expensive markers in favor of no embalming fluids, no vaults and only biodegradable caskets. Markers are allowed, but they are most often simple and carved into natural rock. And the burial plot is located in a nature preserve.
These “dust to dust” burials represent a new—though recycled—way of thinking about death and burial. The Campbells, and those who seek their services, see a distinctly spiritual bent to preserving land while being interred.
They say it’s a misconception to think that only pagans or New Age types would be interested in being buried in a nature preserve.
“We’ve had more Southern Baptist services than anything else,” Mr. Campbell told the News.
The law regarding burial sites is not easily deciphered, but the Campbells have literally made it their business to know the system. Their first memorial nature park, Ramsey Creek Preserve in South Carolina, complies fully with the state’s laws.
The Campbells told the News that 20 people have already been buried at the nature preserve, almost 40 more have bought plots, and hundreds more have inquired about the process.
Memorial Ecosystems has plans for another memorial nature park near San Diego, and it is involved with the creation of another in Florida’s panhandle. Death-care activists near San Francisco also cite Memorial Ecosystems as instrumental in promoting eco-burials there.
Though most Americans will be embalmed after death, the embalming process lacks the religious significance it held for other cultures in other times. For example, the ancient Egyptians were sophisticated embalmers; they believed preservation of the corpse was necessary for a fruitful afterlife.
Other peoples have embalmed their loved ones as a means of preserving the body until it can undergo all funeral rites. This has been especially important during wartime when soldiers, slain on faraway battlefields, were embalmed to preserve the bodies for their journey back home.
Memorial Ecosystems rejects “toxic embalming fluids” and advertises that bypassing embalming also cuts down on funeral costs, which average roughly $6,000 in the United States, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.
In addition to saving money, another appeal of eco-burial is that decomposed bodies will naturally become part of the earth and contribute to new vegetation in the preserve. Thus, the plant life is made “sacred” by the presence of the deceased.
“When you’ve got people buried out there, and your grandfather is buried there, your grandma is buried there, your father and your sister, it makes the land different,” Mr. Campbell told the News. “We hope people will see this as a nature preserve where people happen to be buried.”
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.