Grave sites are designated by natural, flat stones at Memorial Ecosystems in Westminster, S.C.
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msnbc.com contributor
updated 11/4/2003 12:59:34 PM ET 2003-11-04T17:59:34

For some, there’s nothing more ghastly than the idea of having their mortal remains embalmed, sealed in a metal and plastic casket and buried in a cement vault. They’d prefer to be buried “au naturel.” So some companies are thinking outside of the box and offering Earth-friendly burials amid the earth, trees and sea.

When his father died, Dr. Billy Campbell wanted to bury him in simple pine box instead of a fancy casket. But having grown up with the family that ran the local funeral home, he was persuaded to choose the deluxe model.

“So Billy’s dad was buried in the casket used by Hoss Cartwright from ‘Bonanza,’” his wife, Kimberley Campbell, recalls, laughing. “It was supposedly more masculine and manly and made out of the most luxurious Spanish oak, right off the Ponderosa.” Bearing an engraved Italianate scroll inscribed with his name, the heavy metal vault was sealed tight because “your mom wouldn’t want the worms climbing in.” Yet all Billy really wanted was to have his father lying in the earth surrounded by nature.

This experience left him so cold that, in 1996, the couple decided to create a truly nature-friendly burial option, with none of the hallmarks of a modern cemetery. At , located on the Campbells’ 32-acre Ramsey Creek Preserve in Westminster, S.C., there are no flat, manicured lawns, marble monoliths or metal vaults. Bodies cannot be embalmed, caskets must be biodegradable and graves are marked only with simple, flat stones.

The couple manages the land and its streams, wildflowers and forests as a “nature preserve first, cemetery second,” they say.

Thinking outside the box
Ramsey Creek is the first example in the United States of “green burial,” but Memorial Ecosystems hopes to establish a nationwide network of memorial preserves over the next decade.

And , a 350-acre area composed of fields, creeks, ponds and woods in the Florida panhandle, has set aside 70 acres for a memorial park and is currently awaiting approval from the Florida Board of Cemeteries.

The practice is sparking interest outside of the Southeast as well, says Mary Woodsen, vice president of the Pre-Posthumous Society, a recently formed organization based in Ithaca, N.Y., that is interested in starting memorial nature preserves in New York state. Woodsen has tracked seeds of interest in a dozen states, including California, Ohio, Wisconsin and Washington. “If there were a national association, there would be many jumping on board,” she says.

Meanwhile, the movement has already gained significant ground in England, where more than 120 such preserves have been built and 50 more planned, according to the London-based Natural Death Centre.

Back to the sea
For those who would rather sleep with fishes than fertilize soil, in Decatur, Ga., will mix someone’s ash remains with concrete and turn it into an artificial reef to serve as marine habitat for sea life. To date, 200 memorial reefs — expected to last 500 years — have been built off the coasts of Florida, South Carolina and Texas.

The company says these artificial reefs help take pressure off natural reef systems, many of which have been destroyed and overfished, and provide a home for fish, coral and sponges. The reefs are located in specified places and marked with bronze plaques so family members can dive to visit their dearly departed.

Concrete reefs containing cremated remains are lowered into the sea. These artificial reefs are used to create new marine habitats for fish and other forms of sea life.

Saving money and land
From a consumer standpoint, green burials may also be cheaper. The average price of a U.S. funeral is $5,180, according to the National Funeral Directors Association, while burial at Memorial Ecosystems costs about half that — about $2,300. And the reefs cost between $900 and $3,000 depending on size, on top of the price of cremation, which generally costs about $1,000.

So far, interest in green burials isn’t huge, says Carolyn Hayek, of People’s Memorial Association in Seattle, part of the national Funeral Consumers Alliance, because there’s little awareness.

“Usually people are calling about the real practical issues,” she says. “When someone dies, they’re unprepared. They ask, ‘Now what do we do?”

Meanwhile, the funeral and cemetery industries insist their methods are eco-friendly, but some seeking alternatives still have a few bones to pick with them.

Funeral practices are regulated for health and environmental safety, says Mark Musgrove of the National Funeral Directors Association. “If it were a health problem, we’d know it,” he says.

“Cemeteries turn beautiful places into a monoculture of gravestones, really, a landfill of embalmed chemicals and cement,” counters Woodsen of the Pre-Posthumous Society. “Then backhoes, lawnmowers and tree pruners put diesel emissions into the air and pesticides and fertilizers into the water — for what?”

Instead, says Memorial Ecosystems’ Kimberley Campbell, “Wouldn’t it be nicer to leave acres of woods as the living legacy of your death?”

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