Toward an Eco-Friendly Death

07/08/2009 4:00 AM |

As his wife tells it: when Billy Campbell was about eight years old, he had a teacher, a “crazy Southern eccentric,” who would frequently mention his desire to be buried in a burlap sack underneath a tree. It made a lifelong impression on Campbell, now in his 50s, who grew up to be a physician and an ardent environmentalist. While in his 20s, his father died from complications following a minor surgery. After helping to arrange the funeral, Campbell wondered, couldn’t the money spent on the funeral have been used to buy land on which his father could have been buried? Land that also could have been preserved?

He read about spots in the Midwest where the best examples of tall-grass prairie sites were sites on which people had been buried — where developers had been less willing to build. “If this could happen by accident, surely it could happen by design,” said Kimberley Campbell, Billy’s wife. “One evening, probably after too many beers, it all came together.” In 1998, the Campbells opened South Carolina’s Ramsey Creek Preserve, a 34-acre nature preserve-cum-cemetery, with two aims: to conserve land and to provide a space where the dead could be buried naturally, according to ecologically friendly guidelines.

The Campbells are only two of the many people across the country rethinking what to do with the dead in ways that challenge the traditional cemetery. American attitudes toward death are undergoing their most radical shift since the Civil War. But whereas those changes resulted from spiritual concerns in the face of rampant disfigurement and dismemberment — violence on a scale unprecedented in the U.S. — environmental concerns and technological advances are driving the latest. The cemetery could become the latest casualty in the country’s burgeoning green movement.

Though Billy and Kimberley’s model is a response to the cemetery’s grave environmental effects, those aren’t the boneyard’s only problem: it also takes up too much space, according to its critics. In response, partly, cremation rates have risen steadily since 1963, and experts expect the majority of the American dead to be cremated by the middle of the century.

And as Americans might no longer need traditional cemeteries to store the dead, they may no longer need them to grieve for the dead, either. Interactive obituary websites have begun to spring up, and some young people are mourning their fallen friends on the networking sites where they once socialized. On at least three fronts, the traditional cemetery is under attack. “For many Americans, burying the dead is already an old-fashioned idea,” David Sloane, author of The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History, wrote in an email. “We are already in a period of evolution if not revolution.”

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