Going naturally into the hereafter

Times Staff Writer

It’s the ultimate recycling.

With environmental matters getting ever more popular in life, it was only a matter of time before they spread to death too.

“No embalming, no vault and you have to use a biodegradable casket if you use one at all,” said Kimberly Campbell, vice president of Memorial Ecosystems Inc., which operates the Ramsey Creek cemetery in rural South Carolina.

But she hastens to say the company is not absolutist in its back-to-the-land philosophy.


“If someone makes their own casket with a few nails, we’re not going to make a fuss about it,” Campbell said. “And we don’t ask if grandma had a knee replacement.”

The cemetery, which she and her physician husband opened in 1998, kicked off the contemporary green burial movement in the U.S. They do allow grave markers, which aren’t permitted in natural burial sections of Forever Fernwood in Mill Valley, Calif.

At that cemetery near San Francisco, locating the grave of a departed loved one is like an electronic scavenger hunt.

“We issue the family a Google map with the GPS coordinates,” said Jay Boileau, executive vice president of Forever Enterprises, owner of the 32-acre facility.

Fernwood had been around for more than a century as a traditional cemetery before the company, which also operates Hollywood Forever in Los Angeles, took over three years ago.

Except for prior prepaid commitments, all the burials there now have to go natural. The plots currently sell for about $6,000 on the low end and go up to about $9,000, depending on the setting.

Those aren’t the cheapest plot prices, but you save money on the casket. Even if you do use one, the wooden models without painted or lacquered finishes are generally on the less expensive side.

“And no exotic woods, like teak or mahogany, that [deplete] rain forests,” Boileau said.

The Fernwood funeral home plans to eventually offer caskets made of wood from nonnative eucalyptus trees cleared from the land. The prototype, with cracks in the wood and rope handles, looks like something that might have been used in the Wild West days.

“It does look a little rough with the bark and all,” Boileau said.

At the 34-acre Ramsey Creek cemetery, it’s common for the departed to be slipped into the earth without a casket or even a shroud.

The natural approach made Ramsey popular almost from the beginning, Campbell said. People from as far away as California have been being shipped there for burial (dry ice is commonly used to preserve the bodies on flights).

The company recently acquired an additional 38 acres of undeveloped woodland near the town of Westminster (population: 2,700) and has an option on 20 more.

Boileau said Forever tried out its green concept in Northern California first because “it’s the heart of the green movement.” The company is eyeing several other cemetery properties in California, including one near Los Angeles, to establish similar operations, Boileau said.

One of the company’s goals is to conserve land that might otherwise be developed. After all, who would want to put a mini-mall over graves?

Such conservation is part of the pitch.

“Your last act of life,” Boileau said, “becomes one of land preservation.”