Ramsey Creek Preserve in South Carolina, the first green burial site established in the United States, consists of seventy-eight acres of pristine woodlands. Since 1996, people have chosen to be buried there, without vaults or embalming, along simple trails in a beautiful woods, sites marked only by mounds and flat river stones engraved with their information. The land is held and protected by a conservation easement, so the people who are buried there, far from paying a cemetery just to take up space, contribute by their death and choice to saving and protecting the land from development.
It is a comforting place to visit, which is what I did yesterday with my partner. The space feels sacred, a breathing eco-system nurtured by the bodies of people who deliberately decided to enrich the earth, to give their sustenance back to the earth that gave them sustenance. The mounds and markers in the woods create a startling art combining life and death!
In fact, Ramsey Creek Preserve unites life and death in a way sorely missing in modern life. Instead of attempting to fence death off from life in a cemetery, here the juxtaposition of life and death reminds us how stunning life is, how change is its spectacular signature. The combination of the living forest with the burial mounds reminds us, as we walk the tranquil trails, to get on with full-out living!
One flat river stone says, under the name and dates, You kept your promise to love me. It makes me think that all of these Gone-befores kept a promise they must have made, to love the planet that nurtured their lives. My own end-of-life papers have been prepared since I was in my forties, and each time I have updated them, I have designated cremation for disposition of the body. Now I wonder. Cremation means burning fossil fuels so that the nutrients of my physical form create air pollution as part of the process of turning it into ashes, whereas green burial means the nutrients of my body would actually enrich the land. The thought of becoming a real part of a living forest like Ramsey Creek Preserve feels so much more fitting.
Ramsey Creek Preserve was the perfect field trip this week, as I go along at the age of sixty-six, in my Earth School curriculum, always learning. This week is All Hallow’s Eve, aka Hallowmas, Samhain, or Halloween, the ancient festival of the dead. Hallowmas is one of the Old Religion’s eight High Days that divide the year into seasons, Hallowmas marking the midpoint between Fall Equinox and Winter Solstice. Peoples have always honored their ancestors as the Wheel of the Year turns toward the dark, toward that mystery of gestation that looks so much like loss. I think of all those who have gone before as ancestors, and I honor our unseen connections, whether biological or not.
I am grateful that as I age, my spirit lightens. In the woods at Ramsey Creek Preserve, in the brilliant October colors, breathing the invigorating autumn coolness into my lungs, I do not plod. I skip! And I offer thanks to those ancestors who made the sensible decision to have themselves planted here, in order to give something back.