Six Feet Under Can Be Green for Eternity

BY Frank N. Carlson and Saskia De Melker  April 12, 2012 at 1:15 PM EDT

In 1998, Dr. Billy Campbell, a family practitioner in Westminster, South Carolina, opened a land preserve founded on a unique model: enlisting death in the fight for ecological conservation.

Calling it the Ramsey Creek Preserve, Campbell’s idea was twofold: First, he would provide a place for those who wanted a green burial. Known also as natural burial, this practice eschews modern techniques for delaying decomposition. This means no embalming fluids or chemical preservatives such as formaldehyde – a probable human carcinogen – are used, and the body is placed in a simple shroud, a biodegradable casket or urn, instead of one made of treated hardwood and metal. Plus, no pesticides are used to maintain the grounds, and grave markers are natural – composed of rocks or trees native to the environment.

But the second part of Campbell’s plan was key: By having people choose green burial on land set aside as a cemetery, Campbell could protect that land from development and contamination over generations.

“Ecological restoration…may take several hundred years, and that’s way beyond any of our lifespans,” he said. “So how do you fund it, No. 1? And how do you sustain it? You have to build a community.”

Campbell presents these ideas in a new short film now touring the documentary circuit called “Dying Green,” directed by Ellen Tripler. Hari Sreenivasan recently sat down with Tripler and Campbell to discuss the film. (You can view the interview in the video above.)

Today the number of green cemeteries across the country has grown to 36, with some 300 providers of green burial options. That’s according to Joe Seshee, executive director of the Green Burial Council, which provides standards and certification for funeral services. Seshee predicts the trend will only grow with the Baby Boomer generation.

Yet some, like Robert Fells, executive director of the International Cemetery, Cremations & Funeral Association, say green burials and cemeteries don’t represent such a grand departure from current industry practices.

“Cemeteries have always been green and facilitated green burials,” Fells says. “What we’re seeing today, what the green burial grounds are promoting, is they’re saying the remains cannot be embalmed. In the past [embalming] was the family’s option, never a cemetery requirement.”

Fells also cautions against industry “green washing” — advertising that falsely markets environmentally sound practices. Seshee says the Green Burial Council is working to develop standards to prevent against that as demand for green services and products grows.