Content here represents the voice of SIGNATURE SUNSETS, an informational initiative designed to broaden and brighten horizons in the funerary domain.

The material is an outgrowth of a pre-planning reference book, Pondering Leaves: Composing and Conveying Your Life Story's Epilogue, written by the author of this blog.


Thursday, August 20, 2015


Journey Journal... Westminster, South Carolina


Either the name of the site, Ramsey Creek, or the name of the company, Memorial Ecosystems, is apt to be recognized as an icon by providers in the death care industry.  The enterprise is widely lauded as the original prototype for conservation burial grounds in the United States and its footprint has made its way also to other parts of the world.  Established in 1998, it epitomizes the concept of utilizing untainted landscapes of acreage for bodily disposition in order to sustain substantial territory as a haven of ongoing, natural life.  Land protection and restoration dictate operations. It was the first of such projects to be certified by the Green Burial Council – the first so-called “green cemetery.”  The fledging expanse of thirty-eight acres has been augmented over time, now amounting to seventy-six protected acres and exemplifying the conservational thrust of such undertakings.  Through collaboration and an agreement with a non-profit land trust program, Upstate Forever, the site will remain forever wild. 

Designation of such burial grounds as protected land – based on long-term covenants, deed restrictions, and state laws banning development of cemetery properties – assures that there will be no future intrusion by bulldozers razing trees and leveling the grounds for housing or commercial establishments.  Status as a burial site permits this manner of exclusion, yet burials are secondary to the overall objective of earthly preservation.  Compared to high-density interments at accustomed cemeteries, where an underground occupant has neighbors encroaching upon one’s confining patch of a plot, bodies embedded in natural preserves are more apt to dot the turf sporadically, with plenty of “room to breathe.”

Proceeds from the sale of plots breathe life into funds for restoration and acquisition of land.  Endowment monies are utilized for maintenance measures such as attending to trails and other public spaces, maintaining equipment, thwarting growth of invasive species, and acquiring tools, like devices for identification of grave sites via mapping software (GPS and GIS). 

At Ramsey Creek Preserve, people are offered opportunities to make memorial donations for building renovations, stained glass windows in the chapel, benches, and plantings of trees, shrubs, and wildflowers.  Burial of cremated remains is an option, based on the reality of an escalating cremation rate and the prudence of using funds from such plot purchases to advance the cause of land preservation.  Pet burials also are acceptable.  

The cemetery is located between the southern Appalachian Mountains and the Piedmont sector in the western realm of South Carolina.  Nestled among countrysides evocative of summer camp settings, the area bespeaks a stark contrast to the city of Atlanta that’s little more than a hundred miles to the south of it.  State parks within range embellish the vicinity.

Upon escaping the tumult of the region’s interstate highway, the fifteen-mile drive into Westminster offers visual refreshment vitalized by sweeping panoramas of grass and groves of trees untarnished by industrialism.  A ride through the main street reinforces an impression of distinctive singularity, where businesses are solo operations unchallenged by competitive forces.  There is one funeral home in town and one doctor, Billy Campbell, who with his wife, Kimberley, happens to have been the prime mover and co-founder of the burial grounds.  He had grown up in the Westminster environs and returned to serve as a physician after completing his training at the Medical University of South Carolina.  

Undergraduate studies as an ecology student at Emory University laid the foundation for this trailblazer’s eventual initiative.  Academic absorption in medical school concomitantly accompanied by reading of literature about death put flesh on the idea that was already taking root in cognitive chambers.  As a youngster, sleepovers with the local funeral home owner’s son in the upstairs family quarters could possibly have bolstered a proclivity for this mission as well; maybe sleeping on satin pillows ordinarily reserved for casket interiors, but extracted from downstairs inventory, had contributed to his comfort with matters of death.  

Interest in reinvigorating the age-old concept of natural burial purportedly was triggered by an awareness of an eighth-grade teacher’s wish to be buried in a burlap bag with a tree planted over it.  Later, the impetus for implementation of such an endeavor was prompted especially by a medical anthropology article about spirit forests in New Guinea, embedding the seed of inspiration for a means of land preservation in Billy’s mind.  In partnership with one another, Billy and his wife, Kimberley, who had hailed from the United Kingdom, were able to cultivate the idea and bring it to fruition. 

Given their wealth of experience, these pioneers have been tapped as expert consultants by others seeking to launch such projects elsewhere.  Besides attending to their own venture in Westminster, they travel and collaborate to confer knowledge and advice.  Their principles of operation and guidance have contributed a signature stamp to other sites that have been developed. 

Considering the extent of this establishment’s prominence, it may be somewhat surprising that access to the premises is rather inconspicuous.  Visitors in the know can ascertain they have arrived at the spot upon seeing a couple of dangling orange ribbons signifying that it is a "no pesticide spray zone." There is nothing in the way of fanfare at the threshold of the bucolic property. The absence of a sign alerting drivers to the road leading to its location and the pedestrian entrance belie its archetypal status so familiar to anyone who has explored funerary territory. 

But upon contemplation of this contradiction, one recognizes the parallels between appearance and principles.  Mainstream cemeteries commonly engorged with closely situated headstones or fields of plastic blossoms hint at manufactured chaos below their grounds, suggesting conspicuous consumption in a material world.  Here, the absence of prominent signage or funerary furnishings reflects an attitude of simplicity in unadulterated surroundings.    

Administrative functions take place in town at an office on Main Street.  A house by the entrance to the preserve that's currently occupied by a relative is pegged to serve someday as a steward's quarters and a site for lodging of visiting naturalists.  

Across from a portable toilet stationed by corner hedges, a rustic barn with an embedded porch is available so people can gather to converse, perhaps before or after a graveside service… or for other unrelated purposes.  Several wedding receptions have taken place here.  

A room inside the building houses a small display of urns crafted by a local woodworker in addition to a single basket coffin.

Though most of the land is forested, there are open meadows with tall grasses covering sites where individuals’ bodies have been buried.  Growth is unimpeded by mechanical intervention.  Periodically, controlled burns are employed as the preferred technique for restricting intrusion by foreign species of vegetation and stimulating germination of native varieties upon release of nutrients into the ground.  

Often when Ramsey Creek is envisioned, it is the all-faith chapel that comes to mind because of its frequent appearance on websites.  Sight of the representative building at the end of a dirt road prompts a sense of familiarity.  

An original plan to construct a chapel was dismissed upon learning of an abandoned country church within range of the grounds.  Subsequently, it was relocated to a clearing adjacent to the wooded terrain on the property.  

The repurposed building has been beautifully restored, with its gleaming wood interior reflecting the essence of nature, lending warmth and comfort for bereaved guests who occupy it for services.  

Decorative windows that have been contributed as memorial gifts Infuse the arena with colors and designs. 

Dirt trails define pathways for walkers, casket-bearing wagons, and the three golf carts that comprise essential equipment.  

Along the way, the integrity of the land is dotted occasionally with evidence of burials at particular sites… a mound of dirt punctuated by foliage, possibly suggestive of a recently occupied grave…

… a stone marker that’s native to the area, bearing engraved names and dates…

… or sometimes a primitive, handmade stone or wooden bench.  These rough-hewn seats are popular additions, but availability is limited.  

As a prominent feature of this preserve that bears its name, the narrow, curving Ramsey Creek awash with fish winds along the eastern border of it in resounding accentuation.  

The flow of water courses over five rock shoals in its path, creating a sensorial aura of tranquility.  

It’s no surprise that folks tend to prefer burial sites closest to the water, which cost more than ones in other locations.  

But signature manifestations of a natural environment prevail in other locations as well.  This land with its underground repository for the dead is sumptuously blanketed with life.  Under a cathedral of tall trees, it is a sanctuary for pastoral communion by anyone who meanders through it.  

Innumerable species of plants, trees, shrubs, grasses, ferns, vines, herbs, and sedges have been observed and noted on Internet-accessible lists delineating their presence.  Listings swell with new additions after purposeful explorations by visiting naturalists.  Native prairies and savannas, the most endangered southern grasslands, are growing here.  Certain rare species of vegetation, including federally designated endangered ones, have been propagated over grave sites.  

Animals such as deer, wild turkey, dogs, coyotes, and an occasional black bear share tenancy.  Here, where the dead nourish and sustain the living, this place is undoubtedly an environmentalist's paradise… perhaps a version of heaven.  However, one need not be dead to occupy its spaces.  Hiking, bird watching, and special events – even weddings – are encouraged.   

Based on the primordial principle of dust to dust, the human dead here nourish other life forms.  Bodies robed in shrouds or reposing in non-toxic, biodegradable caskets degrade naturally, free of chemical infiltrations or any type of manufactured containment that won’t break down readily.  As decomposition progresses, each burial contributes to the efflorescent restoration of a particular spot, with nutrient deposits effecting the cycle of life, facilitating ongoing rebirth in continuously changing forms.  

Interments in this setting are truly personalized rather than standardized.  A bulldozer is nowhere on the premises.  The groundbreaking founder often breaks the ground himself, removes the dirt, and prepares the sites.  Families have not been keen on digging the grave themselves, opting instead to fill it in with shovels of dirt once a body or casket has been lowered into it.  Kimberley provides flowers for the grave site. 

This cemetery that is teeming with life most likely evokes treasured memories in the minds of those who have experienced burial proceedings within it.  Meaningful measures executed by family members and friends are accented by gestures thoughtfully delivered by Billy and Kimberley.  

Although individuals from any part of the country may be buried here, sometimes for this cemetery’s proprietors there is a penetrating element of poignancy when local townspeople are the folks interred.  In a small community generating close connections, the sorrow of deaths may be felt from an especially intimate perspective.  Since Dr. Campbell is the only local physician, in some instances he has been the person who has diagnosed a terminal illness, informed the victim and the family, possibly followed the person in hospice mode, and subsequently managed the burial.  In any case, regardless of a decedent’s point of origin, these dynamic providers apparently are moored to a steady diet of committed attentiveness and personal touches.  

Guests at the forty to sixty funeral affairs per year often assume roles as participants in many different ways, enabling them to address their grief through active involvement.  Each event is apt to be managed according to individualized measures reflecting characteristics or wishes of the person who died or according to expressive variations of therapeutic value for close companions.  Lives can be enriched when undertakings prompted by deaths are relevant and inspiring.   

A quoted notation on the Memorial Ecosystems website encapsulates the essence of someone’s experience:

“… the first time we came out here, we knew it was right for Chris.  It’s beautiful and peaceful.  It’s full of life, not death."  "When he died, they buried Chris in a coffin his father had made, wrapped in quilts sewn by his great-grandmothers.  His dog Briar was at the graveside, along with 70 friends and family members.”

A conclusive presumption is that burials in this milieu are special.  Amid the sounds of a rushing stream, rustling trees, and flitting birds, the proverbial “resting in peace” feels attainable.  But it is especially possible for those who are mourning their losses… those who are there briefly for committal activities or those who return periodically to visit grave sites while absorbing the atmosphere… or for anyone who seeks to be soothed by nature’s balm.

The notoriety that has come from the efforts of Billy and Kimberley Campbell has been a boon for the birds and bees and flowers and trees, both near and far.  These environmentalists realized the value of reviving an outmoded practice in conjunction with a strategy to capitalize on it as a conservation measure.  In recognizing and actualizing opportunities of death, they nurture life.  Because of them, an idea has been hatched and a variation in contemporary death management has taken root in ever-expanding locations around the country and the world.  In concert with Mother Nature, they have developed a lasting legacy... treasures of ecological significance that will be appreciated through the ages. 


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