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Published: Thursday, 8/12/2004

Pros and cons to 'land conservation'

"In lovely woods just outside the tiny town of Westminster, S.C., discreetly scattered among the tall pines and poplars, are 20 graves, many hand-dug by Billy Campbell.

"The graves, mounds of earth dotted with wildflowers and bathed in dappled sunlight, are marked with flat stones engraved with the names of the dead - from a rock-ribbed Southern Baptist to a gentle New Age hippie."

I have read that two-paragraph introduction to a story in last month's AARP Bulletin at least 10 times and have kept it on top of "think about " stack of mail that includes airline deals and travel brochures. The writer paints a very descriptive picture of a lovely setting.

The story deals with death and burial, subjects that members of AARP, the American Association of Retired People, think about more than do young people.

The story explains that Billy Campbell is not just the town's doctor, he's also an environmentalist. Perhaps because as a doctor he is involved with death more than the average person, Campbell buries patients, friends, and even strangers without embalming them. They are place in biodegradable caskets and sometimes in no caskets at all.

As practical as Campbell's burial plan is, I question that it will gain a large following, particularly with families who are committed, emotionally and financially, to standard cemeteries and plot markers.

The burials are at Ramsey Creek Preserve, near Westminster, which he owns. It was opened six years ago and is run on his principle that the dead can protect the land of the living. In the AARP article, Campbell is quoted as saying that what he is doing is basically land conservation. "By setting aside a woods for natural burials, we preserve it from development and put death in its rightful place, as part of the cycle of life," he is quoted as saying.

The green graveyard is designed with footpaths that wind among the ground identification plaques of the people buried in the preserve. Cremation ashes are also among the burials.

Lest we mark Campbell as an eccentric whose idea to revolutionize the funeral industry will never fly, we should know that the plan is being duplicated in Hollywood Forever cemetery in Marin County, California, where Hollywood stars are buried.

Memorial Ecosystems, Campbell's company, sets aside 25 per cent of the average $2,300 paid for the simple casket and burial for conservation projects. That all sounds very good, but let's think about it for a minute.

The green graveyard plan eliminates the large tombstones that mark family lots and the headstones with individual's names engraved on them. In good weather, driving or walking through the cemetery to read the stones and to study the designs is a journey into a family or community's past. It's not necessarily dismal, but interesting.

To someone who has not yet wholly accepted the idea of cremation, burying a body that is not embalmed appears as gross and disrespectful. We also like to think of our loved one as safe in a casket that is sealed tight in a concrete vault.

In cemeteries where land is available, it does make sense to leave a portion in a natural state as an alternative where people who are into the environmental issue can follow the green graveyard path. It is certainly something to think about. That's why Campbell's story is back on the "think about " pile of mail.

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