Vol 2, No 1          

Forest Light

Eco-Friendly Resting
Places for Loved Ones
With Dr. Billy Campbell

by Diane M. Cooper

Green Burial is a less expensive and more meaningful burial option that provides loved ones with a peaceful resting place in a manner friendly towards nature, wildlife, and the environment. Burial sites are in woodlands and meadowlands, preserving natural habitat for insects, birds, and other wildlife. The use of natural-fiber shrouds, cardboard, or chipboard coffins reduces pollution and needless destruction of forests. ''Nature reserve burial grounds'' and ''woodland burial grounds'' are other terms commonly used. (See also Natural Burial Resources.)

Memorial Ecosystems, formed in 1996, provides Green Burial at its Ramsey Creek nature preserve — the only site of its kind in the United States. It also funds nonprofit organizations, education, the arts, and scientific research. The following is an interview with its founder, Billy Campbell, M.D.

Diane: What is your definition of a Green Burial?

Billy: Well, there are different levels of green burial, from just a simple burial in a regular churchyard on up to the idea of utilizing a community of people to establish a functioning, scientifically-designed nature preserve.

Essentially, there are three levels of Green Burial.

The first level is the burial of an unembalmed body in a biodegradable vessel or shroud.

The next level is to make sure that the spot you're using for burial is in a natural setting.

The third level is burial done in a way that protects the landscape as a whole and that creates a large fund to manage that green area — which is what we are doing here at Memorial Ecosystems. I believe we are the only ones in the world who are doing things this way.

Diane: What are the restrictions for burial? I thought it was illegal to bury an unembalmed body.

Billy: The funeral industry would like you to believe that. But the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] says that there are no medical reasons to embalm.

For one thing, embalming fluid does not kill all the germs. And I read a study by Johns Hopkins Research Center which looked at the direct side-effects of embalming fluids on funeral directors, and they found evidence that there was a high incidence of brain tumors, bone marrow problem, leukemia, and that sort of thing. Also, when fluids are being drained from the body, the person doing this can be exposed to disease.[1]

Diane: Because of the embalming process?

Billy: Yes. But most of the really hot contagions are not persistent. And, especially if you do low density burials like we are doing at our preserve, you are talking about many decades before residuals could reach the water level. So if you have someone that has a hot disease, the best thing to do is to burn the body, or put the body in a box and put it in the ground.

There are local laws about where cemeteries can be, or if you can be buried in your backyard. But Orthodox Jews and Muslims, for instance, have never accepted embalming. So embalming is not a law. People think it is, but it's not.

There are specific cemetery rules. For example, most cemetaries require an outer vault. But that is because they run heavy mowing machinery over the graves. You don't want the mower to sink into the ground, so you need vaults to keep that from happening.

But there are no laws that say you have to have a vault, or that you need to be embalmed. Those are just myths.

Diane: Is it different in different states?

Billy: Some states have laws that are contrary to our purpose. The State of Florida, for example, says that you have to have a paved road into interment areas. So we are looking into alternate paving systems — porous roads which would allow us to keep from black-topping all over the preserve.

But we've sent proposals around to all the states asking if there are any state laws preventing what we are suggesting — creating a nature preserve that would have a dual function — and so far we've received no objections.

We've looked further into the laws and discovered that cemetery authorities can decide what the vegetation looks like. So if ours happens to look like and function as a nature preserve, that's fine.

Diane: On the average, what does a Green Burial cost?

Billy: Transportation is definitely an issue if you have to transport the body to our preserve from far away. Here is one example: We had a family transport their loved one 300 miles, and their total costs were about $3,000. Another family finished out with a cardboard casket, and they paid about $2,600. In comparison, the average for an in-ground conventional burial is about $8,000.

We do take cremated remains, by the way. But philosophically I don't like the idea of using fossil fuels to turn the body's nutrients into air pollution.

Diane: Explain what you mean.

Billy: When we take fossil fuels and cremate a body, if there is mercury in the teeth it causes airborne mercury pollution. There is also nitric oxide pollution as well. All kinds of foul stuff is outgassed when you are burning a body at high temperature. They do have scrubbers over the smoke stacks, but they can't get everything.

Basically, our bodies are made of organic material. Nature will oxidize the body at its own pace and with its own efficiency.

Cremation, though, is still better than getting your body pumped full of chemicals and spending a zillion dollars on lead-lined caskets, and all this other stuff. But I still think that simple Green Burial in an appropriately designed spot that actually saves land is a better choice.

Diane: Are there opportunities for people to develop their own memorial sites?

Billy: Yes.

We think the way this needs to go in the future is to have a not-for-profit company own the land and provide professional and ethical oversight for the socially and environmentally responsible companies that would be service providers. Currently we operate as a socially for-profit company, but we are working hard to spin off a not-for-profit.

It's kind of like a hospital model. There is no need for the doctors to own the hospital. That should be separate. We are in the process of giving away the land at Ramsey Creek.

And we've also found, through a financial adviser who talked with us, that it probably makes more sense financially for there to be a not-for-profit that is independent, that receives a tax break and can borrow money from lending institutions at really preferred rates. It makes financial sense, and it makes sense for people's confidence levels.

What we're hoping to do is to work with institutions, land trusts, schools, and religious institutions. And then Memorial Ecosystems will become the not-for-profit partner who accesses the capital and provides the baseline expertise for setting up the preserve to make sure the surveys are done and that there is compliance with local laws.

Our goal is to save a million acres in the next 20 years. We think we can do this working through local not-for-profits, schools, churches, and land trusts.

Diane: What motivated you to get involved in the ''Natural Death'' movement in the first place?

Billy: One of the catalysts was the death of my Dad right after I graduated from my residency program. He was 55 and died unexpectedly. I went through the process with him and was disgusted about how much money we spent. We could have bought five acres of land with the money we used.

I also thought about it more than 20 years ago in college. Most of my college courses were in biology, and I was especially interested in environmental sciences. I went on to medical school, and when I was faced with cadavers and mortality and those sorts of issues it was kind of a natural thing, with my background, to think about the environment and how we take care of our dead.

It occurred to me after reading books on medical anthropology and how other cultures buried their dead that maybe some of those people had better ideas than we do.

Diane: Other cultures?

Billy: Yes. The one that gave me the ''Aha'' was the Fore' people of New Guinea. They have what are called ''Spirit Forests.'' Because of their beliefs, they leave these areas alone, don't harvest timber, and don't hunt in these areas. So the Spirit Forests became wildlife refugia — refuges in the New Guinea highlands that preserve local diversity.

I thought Spirit Forests were a really cool idea, and started looking at our own practices for burial. I learned through the Nature Conservancy that early cemeteries in the Midwest have preserved some of the best examples of remnant prairies that we have. In the State of Iowa, for instance, except for cemetaries, practically the whole state has been converted to one big corn plantation. So there has been a history that cemeteries actual do protect wild areas. But it has been inadvertent. They weren't burying people to preserve the prairie — it just happened that those areas simply weren't plowed.

So I asked myself if we could use modern conservation biology to create nature preserves where people would also be buried, with the area being used as a tool for ecological restoration, both in degraded areas and in core wild areas.

Just as important as ecological restoration is the ability to strengthen the bond between the human and the natural community. So many people in the U.S. now see nature as a scenic backdrop or wallpaper for recreation. There is no predominant spiritual connection with the land. I see the Green Burial movement as something that can strengthen the spiritual bond between the landscape and people — whether they are Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, or some other religion.

Whatever religious lens you focus on the burial experience, it is potentially transformative when you have a ritual and then an established relationship with a specific piece of land where your family has been buried for several generations — a place you can use while you're alive, where there is wildlife and natural environments, a piece of land that is not just a scenic backdrop.

The burial business is a huge industry with us baby boomers entering the market. We are talking about 20 billion dollars a year. And right now there is tremendous ecological waste within the industry. That's not to denigrate people's choices. But I think there is a better way.

Diane: How does Green Burial affect religious traditions?

Billy: Where I live in South Carolina it is very conservative — very evangelical Christian. You know it says in Genesis 3:19, ''Dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.''[2]

We tell people those ''thou shalts'' don't leave a lot of room for interpretation. That verse doesn't mean that if you get a good embalmer and a really good mortician, your body won't eventually return to dust. It's going to happen sooner or later. But we feel that, in keeping with biblical tradition, plain pine-box burial or shroud burial really makes a lot of sense. It makes sense for the earth and for connecting people back to nature, whether they see the earth as God's creation or not.

Diane: How many preserves of this kind are there in the United States?

Billy: Right now there is only one site, in South Carolina. You can do Green Burials in some states, but there is only this one preserve.

Currently, though, you can choose to be buried in a plain pine box, without being embalmed. There are some older cemeteries and church plots where you are allowed to be buried without a vault, but you're not really contributing to saving or restoring a piece of the earth if you're buried in these areas.

Hopefully there will be more Green Burial preserves available within the next few years. But for now, you need to plan ahead.

Diane: What is the first thing a family should consider?

Billy: What normally happens when someone dies is that the family is usually a little shell-shocked and emotionally not ready for the decisions that have to be made.

The funeral industry is geared up to have you make selections that maximize their profit. So families that have asked about Green Burials are told that there are requirements and restrictions and a lot of extra involvement.

But really, all you need to do is find a plain pine box. For instance, if someone is in hospice, we'll send the plans and you can have the pine box constructed locally. Also, we do have a carpenter here who makes them.

Someone does need to sign the death certificate. So you do need to have a funeral director who will cooperate with your requests. But there is a whole movement here in the States and in the UK about helping people have home funerals and taking the funeral rituals out of the funeral director's control. What we try to do is help people with this process.

At the preserve, someone would have come to pick out the spot for burial prior to the death. We have an inventory of areas available where we've made sure that there are no delicate plants or plants that would be harmed by the digging activity. We have 200 plus species of vascular plants and a number of State-listed plants, and we certainly don't want to cause harm to those.

Most of the gravesites are actually old, degraded farm areas. They are not in the more pristine backcountry of Ramsey Creek.

When the loved one dies, the chosen funeral director picks up the body and transports it here to the preserve. Families can then help dig the hole if they choose. We've had family members help dig the grave, lower the body, and refill the hole. This is not required, but people can participate if they like.

One family member recently said, ''I know that people think I'm crazy. I could be home popping Xanax and sitting on the couch like the others, but I'd like to be out here doing something for Mom.''

We also supply cardboard caskets for free as an alternative to the pine boxes. They are the same caskets that people are cremated in.

One client, before she died, said she wanted to have the least between her body and the earth. So the family used a cardboard casket. They decorated it with cloth that had flowers on it, because she liked flowers. They helped dig the hole, they helped lower the body into the grave. They then helped fill the hole and plant native vegetation on top of the grave afterwards. They also had a stone engraved to place on top.

Diane: So you do allow grave markers?

Billy: We do allow stones. But they have to be natural stones. We keep a computerized inventory of grave locations, and give everyone a page of life-history information where they can have a photo or their favorite song. We can even do multimedia in the digital archive. Basically, this is so people don't have to have an elaborate marker. They can come to this special place on the land which we have designated as a memorial of sorts.

Diane: So the families can participate in the whole process if they desire?

Billy: Yes. We allow families to participate to the extent they want to. The family of the last person that was buried at the preserve didn't really want to participate at all. They did not want to dig the hole or fill it in. And that's fine with us, we don't insist on that. But we have found that most families do want to help with at least lowering the body into the grave.

Diane: It seems like it would be an amazing closure process.

Billy: People have come away from the services saying that it was such a beautiful experience. We have only had around 15 burials so far, and have sold probably another 15 sites. But it's enough so that we know how to do it and how to get families involved.

Diane: Do you find that people come back and visit more often than at a normal cemetery?

Billy: Of course it depends on the family. We invite families to come out and spend some time. It is an active nature preserve. We like to tell people that this is a nature preserve where people are buried, not a cemetery trying to act like a nature preserve. It's really an integrative thing. For instance, next week we are doing a bug survey on the creek, as invertebrates are very important here. We did a fish survey last year, and we have an ongoing plant inventory.

Diane: What are prospective clients' first impressions of the preserve?

Billy: Most people when they see it are kind of under-whelmed. They say, Geeze I don't know what I was expecting but this is just like being in the woods. And it is. You might see an occasional mound, but you wouldn't know if it was where a tree blew over or where someone was actually buried.

What's happening today is that people are deritualizing the burial process because the rituals that are available are so foreign to them. The idea that the body should be fixed up as if it were still alive, using elaborate caskets costing upwards of $10,000, or spending $15-20,000 dollars for mausoleum burials — it's alienating and wasteful.

Many people think it's crazy to spend this kind of money, and they end up taking the opposite track, saying, Just cremate me. Put my ashes in a bag and scatter me.

I think many people today are separated from nature, and when we bury people in caskets and put them in places of perpetual care, with trimmed grass, nature is kept at bay. These environments do not encourage relationships with the earth.

If we can take people who haven't had the relationship with nature that some of us have, and show them this beautiful place were they can come after the shattering experience of death of a loved one, perhaps there can be a transformation of the grief process. I've actually seen people go away from this experience and call us later to say that when they have felt bad they've gone back and walked along the creek and felt closer to their loved one.

Diane: How may people contact Memorial Ecosystems?

Billy: Our email is memorialecosystems@mindspring.com, and the website is memorialecosystems.com.

Diane: Thank you.

Memorial Ecosystems (MEI)

At this time, the only Green Burials in the United States come from Memorial Ecosystems, a South Carolina-based organization. Founded in 1996 by Dr. Billy and Kimberley Campbell, Bruce Hare, and Dr. Kerry Brooks, Memorial Ecosystems has a 32-acre ''nature preserve cemetery'' called the Ramsey Creek Preserve, located at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains in western South Carolina.

Ideally, someone would come to the preserve to pick out a spot, but if that travel is impossible, Memorial Ecosystems will do it for the family or client. They also will make travel arrangements.

Memorial Ecosystems prohibits the use of vaults, grave liners, and toxic embalming fluids. Small, flat markers of indigenous stone are allowed (and can be engraved), though they are discouraged. Trees and other living memorials are the preferred alternatives.

Green burial at Ramsey Creek is cheaper than traditional funeral and burial services. This is because no vault, embalming, or expensive casket is required. Memorial Ecosystems provides the biodegradable casket free of cost.

For a detailed cost comparison, visit their site at Memorial Ecosystems, or email them at memorialecosystems@mindspring.com.

See also Natural Burial Resources.

George William (Billy) Campbell, M.D. is the chief executive officer and a co-founder of Memorial Ecosystems. His Foothills Family Medicine, established in 1990 in downtown Westminster, South Carolina, occupies a portion of approximately 7,500 square feet of historical property which he has restored.

Dr. Campbell has founded, co-founded, or participated in scores of local and international projects to protect natural habitat and forests, often purchasing and donating land for this purpose.

Among dozens of other groups, he is a member of the Society for Ecological Restoration, Audubon Society, Natural Areas Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a lifetime member of the Nature Conservancy. You can reach him at billyc@carol.net, phone 864-647-7798, fax 864-647-0403.


  1. See Formaldehyde Evidence of Carcinogenicity and Mortician Becomes Infected with TB from Cadaver.

  2. King James Bible, Genesis 3:19 — ''In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.''

Top of Page Print Version