Nice New Article by Mark Harris

You may know Mark Harris as the author of “Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial.” Well here’s a nice new article by Mark, largely about a woman who, much like me, had something of an “a-ha” moment at her father’s funeral.

I’ve met, or spoken to, all the folks mentioned and quoted in the article, and all are good people who are helping, one person and one day at a time, to transform the way we treat our dead (and deal with mortality) in this death-denying culture.




Green Burial Now Available at Spring Grove Cemetery!


It’s official! Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati, Ohio — one of the nation’s oldest and most respected cemeteries — is opening a green burial section this summer. I’m particularly excited since this is taking place just miles from my home, and also because I’ve had the chance to offer some ideas and resources to the folks at Spring Grove as they made their plans and preparations to open this new section to the public.

The significance of Spring Grove choosing to include full-body green burial among its consumer options should not be underestimated. With 733 acres of protected land in the midst of a major American city, Spring Grove is the second-largest cemetery in the U.S. It is operated as a non-profit cemetery and arboretum, and is also a designated National Historic Landmark. In fact, I believe this has the potential to be a game-changer in the cemetery industry, opening the door to natural burial in an unprecedented way, since Spring Grove has always been something of a trend-setter among larger, more historic, “garden cemetery” type burial grounds in the U.S. (

Spring Grove opened a lovely, wooded section for Creamation area more colorgreen burial of cremains a few years ago (see photo).



New Green Burial Locations Popping Up All Over

I look forward to checking out this new land conservation natural burial location just outside Asheville, N.C., later this month. I am particularly impressed that the folks operating this burial sanctuary are part of a larger project that includes “home funerals” ( in a holistic approach to end-of-life, and that they worked closely with Billy and Kimberley Campbell, the undisputed leaders in the natural burial movement. (The video features the Campbells, and is an excellent introduction to green burial to boot…).

Here is an article about the place:

Congratulations, Carolina Memorial Sanctuary!(


Exploding some myths about green burial

There’s a lot of misinformation out there about natural burial. Some of it is promulgated by the funeral industry; some of it is simply urban legend or erroneous but commonly held ideas. Let’s explode some myths:

MYTH number 1:

The law requires a concrete burial vault. Not true. Most conventional cemeteries do have this as a requirement, as part of their conditions of service, but for them it’s all about maintaining a flat surface for mowing (and about making a profit, as vaults can add thousands to the cost of a funeral).

MYTH number 2:

The law requires a body to be embalmedNot true. You can be chilled instead. A funeral director can do this for you in a big walk-in cooler, or, if you opt for a “home funeral,” you can use dry ice, gel packs, and so on to chill the body. (It is true, however, that a funeral home may require embalming – both for “viewing,” and also, again, as a profit-making venture.)

MYTH number 3:

You can’t be buried in a simple pine box or shroud (or straight in the ground, for that matter)Not true. You can be buried in a simple pine box coffin, or in a simple shroud, or on a trundle (a flat board coffin with no lid), or only in your street clothes, or for that matter, the same way you came into this world, if you wish. What are commonly considered “requirements,” even laws, are actually the regulations of individual cemeteries and funeral homes. Again, think “profit margin.”

MYTH number 4:

You have to use a funeral homeNot true (in most places). You can even act as your own funeral director in many states. In all, 42 states have no laws requiring you to use a funeral director or funeral home. You can even prepare a body and have services in your own home. Learn more from the National Home Funeral Alliance:

MYTH number 5:

Animals will dig up the grave. Not true. Animals simply do not dig into graves. Ramsey Creek, a natural burial cemetery in South Carolina that has been burying human beings naturally since 1998, has a wild boar population as well as black bears, and they have never experienced any problems. This is one of those “old-wives-tale” myths popular in scary stories. Nature preserve cemeteries throughout the United States have virtually no issues with animals disturbing graves. Pioneers buried in cemeteries near wilderness areas did not experience grave disturbances from animals; why should we now?

MYTH number 6:

A natural burial will harm water quality. Not true. In England, where natural burial is prevalent, numerous water studies of ground water have indicated no deterioration of water quality. And, because green cemeteries don’t have run-off of fertilizers, spilled fuels or toxins, natural burial land usually produces cleaner water than urban, suburban, or agricultural areas. Soil is a remarkably good filter!

MYTH number 7:

Embalming preserves a body for all time. Not true. In fact, embalming only retards the decomposition process – for a few weeks or months at most. Embalmed bodies, even in hermetically sealed caskets and concrete vaults, deteriorate nonetheless.

–compiled from resources from the Penn Forest Cemetery and Piedmont Pine Coffins

Learn a lot in 15 minutes!

So you’re fairly new to this green burial thing, and eager to learn more — but don’t want to get bogged down in doing lots of research…

Get up to speed in 15 minutes by reading and / or watching (there are different learning styles, after all!) the following:



R.I.P. Six Feet Under

Ten years after millions of others mourned the passing of Six Feet Under I was hugging my knees and bawling like a baby [hey — WAIT — is there a statute of limitations on spoiler alerts? — is a decade long enough not to worry about spoiling things for someone — oh, what the heck — just in case — SPOILER ALERT — stop reading NOW if you don’t what to know how Six Feet Under ends] as Claire rode off into the sun (well, technically and importantly, away from the sun) and into the next 80 years of her life. I didn’t ever expect to get so emotionally involved. But who was I kidding? This was, after all, a show about death. A show that told us, point blank, that “Everything. Everyone. Everywhere. Ends.”

Six Feet Under imageAnd Six Feet Under did it like no other show ever had or probably ever will. At once a groundbreaking (pun intended) family drama (melodrama?) and a yank-aside-the-curtain look at the funeral industry and our American relationship with death (hint: it’s a damn unhealthy relationship!), Six Feet Under (2001-2005) was brilliant, uncomfortable, riveting, and, I suspect, life-changing for many of its dedicated viewers. I now count myself among them.

It started out casually enough. Six Feet Under was one of those shows that kept coming up in conversation, or popping up in online posts — insinuating itself into my awareness. One of those shows you surely had to know. When folks would find out that I was interested in alternative approaches to death such as green burial and home funerals, they would jump right to Six Feet Under — and then were astounded that I had never watched it. My excuses were good: When it was on, I had a small child. There wasn’t room or time in my life for a TV series (Lost being the exception; OK, so really there wasn’t room or time for one more TV series). Oh — and we didn’t have HBO. At least that was a legitimate excuse.

But in the age of Netflix, Hulu, and library DVD  catalogs — and with an empty nest at home — this year I finally had no more excuses. I was beginning a sabbatical in which I would be learning everything I could about natural burials. I was embracing an amorphous movement loosely called Death Positive — a loose-knit group of people and practices hoping to shift the conversation (create a conversation?) about death in America, away from denial and distance toward acceptance and integration, meaningful rituals, greater harmony with the natural world and its rhythm of birth, death and renewal.

So it was, well, only natural that as 2015 began, I began the project of watching Six Feet Under — from beginning to oh-so-perfect end.

It started with a snowed-in mini-marathon last February, at the beginning of my sabbatical. It ended on an unseasonably warm December evening with the aforementioned tear-fest while I watched, agape, as the writers and producers proved, indeed, that everything and everyone ends. In between, I gladly rode the emotional rollercoaster of the Fisher family. I learned things I never dreamed about funeral homes and the funeral industry (this was, after all, sabbatical work, right?). At a home funeral conference 20151003_175156in California, I even met a vendor named Esmerelda Kent (not the person pictured here, though this is her display). Esmerelda just happened to be the woman who provided the shroud that was used in the show’s climactic green burial scene (which you can just make out in the center of her poster). The simple, lovely burial of Nate Fisher was the American public’s first real exposure to green burial; it served as something of a coming-out party for both the natural burial movement and a wider range of alternative death practices.

In the decade since Six Feet Under ended, articles about natural burial have appeared in major publications like the New York Times, Time magazine and Mother Jones. Television networks like PBS, and numerous local TV stations have spread awareness of green burial even further. The number of locations where one can be buried in an environmentally sound and spiritually satisfying manner has skyrocketed, to the point that some “conventional” cemeteries are now even opening green burial sections. A group of creative young thinkers (led by Caitlin Doughty of “Ask a Mortician” internet fame and Urban Death Project founder Katrina Spade) is changing the cultural rules around death and dying, while inspiring a new generation that will transform how we think about our own mortality.

Which brings me back to Six Feet Under, and its powerful finale, hailed by many critics as the best final episode in TV history. I’ve watched it again now, a couple of times, before I could bear to write about it here. One thing’s for sure: I know that, from now on, anytime I need a good cry — or simply a healthy dose of perspective — I can watch the final six minutes of Six Feet Under, or simply listen to Sia’s “Breathe Me” (like I’m doing right now).

The finale’s potency, I believe — like that of the entire series — lies in the fact that it is an exquisite memento mori, a brilliant, engaging reminder of our mortality. It portrays the simple yet sublime reality that death is intimately interwoven with life. As Steve Jobs once said, “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered.”

We all have that same tool — but each of us has our own story. It has a beginning, a middle — and an end. “Everything. Everyone. Everywhere. Ends.” That is the bittersweet and beautiful truth. Let us embrace it — and one another.

Atlanta’s Secret Sanctuary: Honey Creek Woodlands

Just a few miles east of the concrete jungle that is downtown Atlanta rests a lush, diverse ecosystem known as Honey Creek Woodlands. Roughly 600 people also rest peacefully there, in their final resting place — in one of Atlanta’s best-kept secrets — a natural burial sanctuary that encompasses nearly 1,000 acres of stunning beauty.


My ongoing tour of conservation-based, nature-preserve cemeteries landed me in the pristine Honey Creek Woodlands recently, and I have to say — I was impressed! As part of the 8,000 acres of the Arabia Mountain Heritage Corridor that runs through Conyers, Georgia (which includes miles and miles of gorgeous hiking trails), Honey Creek is owned and operated by the Monastery of the Holy Spirit. But don’t let that fool you; this natural burial cemetery is open to people of all faiths, or no faith, and the vibe is completely free of sectarian or religious overtones . . . unless Nature happens to be your religion.

Deer and foxes, an amazing variety of butterflies and birds, and more than a few turtles and lizards make their home in and around Honey Creek, and I enjoyed hearing moving stories of how creatures ranging from butterflies and moths to snapping turtles have been part of the nearly 600 burials that have taken place there since Honey Creek opened in 2008. Each creature, it seems, is welcome, and its participation in the great cycle of life is also celebrated, every time someone is laid to rest in the earth from which we all come.

The result, as Honey Creek steward Elaine Bishoff puts it, is “not so much a cemetery that allows wildlife, but a wildlife preserve that allows burials.”

Indeed, if you seek a natural burial, Honey Creek offers not only more wildlife and more acreage, but more selection than most of the growing number of “green” cemeteries in America. There is a woodlands section composed of many different types of trees, fairly densely packed for a true “in the woods” feel, with paths that weave throughout. There is a meadow section of tall wild grasses and beautiful views. There’s a savanna section near the creek. There’s the stately pine forest section,20151106_123019    where tall pine trees and relatively open areas underneath them invite walking and reflecting — not to mention sitting, on one of the many simple, wooden benches that are sprinkled throughout. Finally, there’s the newly opened hilltop section, which offers a full 360-degree vista and will soon include a non-denominational chapel featuring a 40-foot bell tower, to open in 2017.

All of these sections of the Honey Creek Woodlands are reached, first by driving more than a mile off a two-lane highway (the monastery is on the other side of the highway), then by hiking or taking one of the cemetery’s golf carts another mile or so on a gravel path that includes a bridge over Honey Creek itself. 20151106_113503  In other words, though you are technically still within the metropolitan Atlanta area, when you visit Honey Creek Woodlands, you really are “off the beaten path,” well away from “civilization” — and definitely “back in nature.”

When you’re in Atlanta, be sure to set aside an entire day to get the full Honey Creek experience — and if you live in or around Atlanta, I encourage you to look them up (, give them a call, and schedule a tour. You will enjoy Honey Creek while you are alive — and your loved ones will enjoy it, after you are gone.



A Death Cafe, Death Doulas and a Dedication

October has been quite a month for me. It began with a trip to California for the biennial conference of the National Home Funeral Alliance (, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping people reconnect with more traditional (and meaningful) practices in caring for the dead and dying. Did you know that it’s perfectly legal almost everywhere in the U.S. to care for your own loved one’s body following death — the same way people all over the world have done since the dawn of humanity? Did you know that there are people specially trained to assist the dying as they transition into death (sometimes called “death midwives” or “death doulas”), much the same as there are people trained to help mothers as their newborns transition into this life?  Were you aware that there are groups of compassionate, caring singers (“threshold choirs” — who will come to the bedside of the dying, to help ease the transition?

The author with Caitlin Doughty

At the conference, I attended workshops that ranged from how to bathe and shroud a body, to spiritual practices in home funerals, to the nuts and bolts of becoming a “death doula.” I had the opportunity to meet leaders in the field, including best-selling author and “Ask a Mortician” star Caitlin Doughty. There was a special video feed from a well-known television star who had been so moved by the home funeral of his sister, that he wanted to reach out to the conference. There was a very emotional screening of the green burial documentary “A Will for the Woods.” In short, it was a whirlwind 48 hours, and I left both inspired, and just a bit overwhelmed.

Three days later, I drove from Cincinnati up to Gambier, Ohio, for the dedication of the Kokosing Nature Preserve ( In less than two years, the good folks at the Philander Chase Corporation, under the stewardship of Amy Henricksen, have transformed a golf course into a lovely, conservation-based 20151008_161649natural burial sanctuary. Through periodic visits to Kokosing, and meetings with Amy, I have followed the progress there, with hopes of learning more in my pursuit of one day helping create a natural burial sanctuary in Southwest Ohio.

Then, earlier this week, I drove to Columbus to attend my first Death Cafe ( Though now a worldwide phenomenon, Death Cafes in America actually began in Columbus.  These gatherings (which always feature tea and cake!) death cafe postcardare open-minded, open-hearted, open-ended conversations about what is perhaps the most taboo subject in America.

At the Death Cafe I attended, participants ranged from nurses and health care professionals to cancer survivors to spouses and adult children of the elderly; they ranged in age from their 20s to their 70s. They shared one thing in common: A desire, and a need, to talk about death in a non-judgmental, agenda-free environment. And they were willing to have this conversation with strangers. Perhaps, in fact, it was better that way.

Inspired by the experience, I will be facilitating two Death Cafes in Cincinnati in November — on the morning of Monday, Nov. 2, from 10:30 to noon, and on the night of Tuesday, Nov. 17, from 7:30-9:00. You can read more at



Finding My Place

There’s something a bit surreal about walking through the woods, looking for the place where you will be buried. In most respects, it’s just like any other late-afternoon hike in the woods – peaceful, relaxing, away-from-it-all – the only sound, that of crickets, birds, and a lone frog. But there’s also that heightened awareness — spiritual radar, if you will – scanning for just the right energy, just the right frequency.

Path into the woods
Path into the woods at Ramsey Creek

That, and the fact that every so often, you catch a glimpse of a subtle, engraved, natural stone that indicates – through a name, some dates, perhaps a brief saying – that someone else, is already buried there.

… Here’s a place that feels OK. But I move on. Here’s another that might be alright … yet I remain restless, and the hike continues. Down a winding path, to a creek whose gentle flow I had been hearing through the trees. Ramsey Creek. Some rocks create a small “waterfall,” maybe a couple of feet high. I love waterfalls. But again, this just doesn’t feel quite right.

So I begin to ascend, once again – this time, taking a different path. I stop for a moment when I notice a simple flat stone that reads “Thank you Nature – Evelyn.” The iconic image that is included in the beautiful green burial documentary “A Will for the Woods.” I sit down on the other side of the path and rest, paying my respects to Evelyn, and pondering how – though I did not know her – 20150911_181610I have something profound and, yes, something eternal in common with her. Something more than merely being human and being mortal (though that would be enough). I think we share the feeling of being called to go against the grain of modern American culture, and be buried in the old way.

I spend some time, communing with Evelyn, and with the Nature to which she was so grateful – and so connected. And then I continue up the hill.

As the terrain levels out, I realize the sun is now slanting at a lower angle through the trees. I listen carefully, and can hear the creek in the distance. I look across a ravine, and see nothing but forest – stately, old-growth trees interspersed with younger trees and understory growth, the occasional flowering bush or shrub, mushrooms and moss.

A young pine tree, somewhat shorter than I am, catches my eye. An open space, covered with leaves and pine cones, next to the trail beckons me. I sit down once more – and immediately feel at peace. At home. And I know: This is it.

my spot best picture

I have found the spot where I would want to be buried. The spot where I can envision my family and loved ones, every so often, coming to sit, just like I am, right now.

Maybe I will be buried here. Maybe I won’t. There remain other places to explore. South Carolina is a long way from Ohio. I still hope to one day create a natural burial sanctuary like Ramsey Creek – and thus, perhaps, my own permanent resting place – in Southwest Ohio, where I have lived for more than a dozen years.

But sitting here now, I am awash with a sense of profound, deep peace – knowing that my quest to return naturally to the earth, in a way that can help sustain and steward the ecosystem, may ultimately be fulfilled. Maybe even in this very spot.

It is good to know where you are going.

Bill’s Top Three

I’ve visited a lot of natural burial locations this year, but there are three that simply stand out — and I want to lift them up for you in the following REVIEWS OF TOP GREEN BURIAL SITES:

I don’t think you can get a much better recommendation from someone than “I want to be buried there.” That’s how I feel about Ramsey Creek Preserve ( upstate South Carolina. Ramsey Creek was the very first conservation natural burial ground in America, and 17 years after opening, it remains the premiere green burial location in the U.S. (if not the world).

Founders Billy and Kimberley Campbell still operate Ramsey Creek with the same personal, compassionate care that led them to start the natural burial movement in this country in the 1990s. Billy still digs the graves by hand, carefully maintaining each one long after the burial; Kimberley still meets with each family to craft and create a meaningful, intimate, personalized memorial experience. One week this spring, while I was visiting there, the Campbells had burials on three successive days — yet their care for the deceased and the mourners, and their loving attention to detail, was clearly evident. Though many people have now returned naturally to the earth at Ramsey Creek, it is remains the quintessential “small family business” — in the very best sense of that concept.

Add to that the sheer natural beauty of Ramsey Creek, and you begin to get a sense of what a natural burial sanctuary should — and truly can — be. The original 33 acres Ramsey Creek trailhave more than doubled (preserving its natural ecosystem in perpetuity), and now a visitor can walk along many lovely trails that wind peacefully through the woods and the graves. The creek itself meanders more than half a mile through the property, offering a sense of calm and serenity as one hikes, remembers, and contemplates.

At the entrance — off a nondescript country road — there is a simple gravel parking lot, a humble home/office, and a field. At one end of the field is a small chapel (an old country church that Billy Campbell — in typical fashion — first saved from destruction, then turned into a thing of beauty to behold). The chapel serves as a non-sectarian place of prayer and remembrance for memorial services, and even the occasional joyous wedding!

By providing personalized service and care, a setting of unrivaled natural beauty, and an on-site chapel for memorial services, Ramsey Creek is the best of the best when it comes to natural burial.

Many in the natural burial movement will be familiar with Pine Forest Memorial Gardens in Wake Forest, North Carolina. ( The documentary film “A Will for the Woods” ( chronicles the life and death and burial of Clark Wang, Clark's grave #1who — with the help of Pine Forest’s manager Dyanne Matzkevich — created the Garden of Renewal at Pine Forest, North Carolina’s first Green Burial Council certified natural burial sanctuary.

I had the pleasure of visting Pine Forest in late April, when spring was in full bloom, and spending some time with Dyanne. Her deep, quiet spirituality and her compassion can be felt everywhere in the Garden of Renewal, which is accessed by walking along a trail called the Path of Clark’s Reflection. On one side of the path, there is a bubbling fountain of overflowing water from a beautiful pond on the other side. The pond creates an understated, natural sense of separation between the conventional cemetery portion of Pine Forest, and the Garden of Renewal.

Since its first burial in 2010, Pine Forest has now buried 40 people in the woods behind the pond. This spring, mayapples abounded throughout the dozen or so acres of the Garden of Renewal, popping up on and around various graves that were, as at many green burial locations, marked by simple, hand-engraved stones placed flat on the ground, in the shade of trees and natural growth. Though one must drive through the conventional cemetery to reach the natural burial ground, it is well worth it — and once there, you will quickly forget (and can scarcely even see) the other part of the cemetery.

Pine Forest is located in a residential area in what has become a suburban bedroom community just north of Raleigh. Unlike Ramsey Creek, it is easily accessible from anywhere in the Triangle Area of North Carolina and, in fact, much of the central eastern seaboard.

The third location I can recommend without reservation is on the other side of the country, in a very different natural setting and with a much different habitat. White Eagle Memorial Preserve ( in south central Washington state. Part of the mission and landscape of the Sacred Earth Foundation, which is preserving more than 1,000 acres adjacent to Native American tribal lands in Washington. White Eagle is but one project of the Sacred Earth Foundation — but a very, well, sacred one. Amid tall, stately pine oaks and ponderosa pines, White Eagle steward Jodie Buller oversees what I can only describe as sacred land, put to sacred purpose.

In a dry area prone to wildfires, the graves at White Eagle are each uniquely alive with new, 20150622_112613native growth. When I visited there in June, one recently dug grave had experienced a burst of wildflowers and plants in a spot where, prior to the digging of the grave, there had been nothing but brown dirt. There is no better evidence of the benefit to nature itself of natural burial than one can see, everywhere you turn, at White Eagle.

But the benefits to the spirit are even more palpable. I have never felt so surrounded by Spirit than in walking the largely unmarked 20 acres of the White Eagle Memorial Preserve. If you live on the West Coast, or your spirit is particularly drawn to the sacred rhythms of native ways, I encourage you to check out White Eagle.

In fact, you cannot go wrong with any of these three wonderful natural burial sanctuaries.

A Moving Green Burial Testimonial

As many of you know, Foxfield Preserve was the original conservation natural burial location in Ohio. Its current steward, Sara Brink, writes a monthly blog about Foxfield titled “The Green Reaper,” which I highly recommend.

Her August post was particularly moving, and offers an insight into the experience of a natural burial, both from the director’s perspective, and from the family’s. You can read it here:


Tri-State Burial Areas

Many people who, like me, live in and around Cincinnati have asked me where they can be buried naturally here in the Tri-State (Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky, for those of you who aren’t familiar with our area). Here is a brief list of natural burial sites in the Tri-State:

Ohio’s oldest — and greenest — “green burial” location is Foxfield Preserve, a non-profit, land-conservation burial site operated by The Wilderness Center ( in Wilmot, Ohio.

Ohio’s newest natural burial ground is the Kokosing Nature Preserve ( As part of the land trust of Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, this latest entry in the Buckeye State’s green burial field is actually a former golf course! The preserve and cemetery will be officially dedicated on Oct. 8, but Kokosing has already had its first burial of cremated remains.

There are at least four “hybrid” natural burial locations in Ohio that are open to the public. A hybrid cemetery is a conventional cemetery that has added a section dedicated to “green” burials. Outside of West Alexandria, Ohio, is the Preble Memory Gardens ( Not far away in Dayton you will find St. Kateri Preserve at the Calvary Cemetery ( There is also a new natural burial annex across the road from the Glen Forest Cemetery in Yellow Springs ( Finally, in northeast Ohio you will find the Emerald Meadows at the Canton Cemetery Association (

Statue of St. Kateri
Statue of St. Kateri at the Calvary Cemetery in Dayton

Indiana, which has some of the most restrictive funeral laws in the country, is home to two public natural burial options. Oak Hill Cemetery North in Crawfordsville, Indiana (, and Kessler Woods at Washington Park North, in Indianapolis ( are both hybrid cemeteries that now offer natural burial options.

There are no public natural burial options in the state of Kentucky at this time.

Careful readers will note that the Cincinnati area has not been included in this list. That is because, unfortunately, no natural burial locations are located in or around the metropolitan area. If you would like to be part of helping to change that, please contact me!

Summer Movie List

As summer winds down, in addition to a natural burial reading list (see “Summer Reading List”), I want to offer you a summer movie list as well. Though these titles will almost certainly be a little more difficult to come by than the books I reviewed previously, they are well worth the effort to track down.

Hands down the most moving documentary I have yet to see about “green burial” is A Will for the Woods (watch the trailer at  If you’re ready to learn about natural burial while also resonating with a poignant, deeply human story of heartbreak, courage and commitment, this full-length film will touch your heart — and perhaps even change the way you think about burial. Directed by Amy Browne, Jeremy Kaplan, Brian Wilson and Tony Hale, A Will for the Woods recounts the dream, and the death, of Clark Wang as he bravely creates a living legacy.

The result is Pine Forest Memorial Gardens outside Raleigh, N.C., which remains to this day North Carolina’s only conservation natural burial site. In saving a lovely wooded area from the bulldozer, and creating a natural burial ground for himself and others, Clark Wang is an inspiration to us all. Equally inspirational are the other persons who appear in the documentary — Wang’s wife Jane, their friends, and the woman who ultimately helps Clark make his dream a reality, Dyanne Matzkevich, now the manager of Pine Forest. I had the privilege of meeting Dyanne, and visiting Pine Forest and Clark’s grave, this spring. It was an experience I will never forget.

Learn more about this tender, touching movie at

In the half-hour documentary category, definitely check out Dying Green, a film about Dying GreenBilly Campbell, the founder of the green burial movement in North America. (Full disclosure: I have also had the privilege of meeting Campbell and his wife Kimberley, who together operate the oldest — and most beautiful, IMHO — natural burial sanctuary in the U.S., Ramsey Creek Preserve in South Carolina.)

Dying Green recounts how Dr. Billy Campbell, a small-town physician (he calls himself “the town doctor”) was converted to a passionate belief in green burial — and how that passion compelled him to he make a connection between natural burial and environmental conservation that continues to spawn other green burial sanctuaries around the country. You can watch the trailer here:

If you’re noticing a theme here, it’s “conversion.” Like the Campbells, like Dyanne Matzkevich, most of us must have some kind of “conversion experience” before we can move from the passive acceptance of conventional burial and funeral customs, circa current and 20th century American custom, to an embrace of a much more natural, instinctive, deeply human way of handling our dead. Both A Will for the Woods and Dying Green show how professionals in related industries (one a doctor, one already a funeral director) came to rethink how what they do impacts both people and the environment. Both movies are highly recommended viewing.

I would be remiss if I did not include the critically acclaimed, classic HBO series Six Feet Under in any summer-viewing list. Having missed out on it myself when it originally aired (2001-2005), I’ve been binge-watching the series this year. I’m halfway through, and simply loving it.

As much family drama as it is commentary on life, mortality, and the funeral industry, Six Feet Under deserved each and every one of its multitudinous award nominations. If you’re looking for an “unsettling yet powerfully human exploration of life and death” (per the Peabody Awards in 2002), look no further than Six Feet Under. Available on-demand online and at your local library. Classic episodes so far (remember, I’m only halfway through) include the pilot, “The Room,” “Out, Out Brief Candle,” “Back to the Garden” and “Perfect Circles.”

Summer Reading List

I know there are only a few weeks of summer left, but if you’re headed to the beach (or the mountains, or just to your favorite reading chair), here are some books you might consider taking along. They are certainly discussion-starters, and each is a must-read for anyone interested in natural burial or reforming the funeral industry.

If there is one book to get you started, it’s Grave Matters, by Mark Harris. This is Grave Mattersthe primer on both why our modern American funeral industry needs reform, and how individual Americans and families can find alternatives to the one-size-fits-all funeral. Harris’ style is direct and readable. Through real-life (and death) stories, you’ll learn what really happens when your loved one is embalmed — and thereafter. (To be an informed consumer, we each need to know this information, distasteful as it may be.) You’ll learn about alternatives ranging from natural burial to burial at sea. If you read one book about death and burial, this should be it. (Though if you do read it, you may not want to stop there!)

Harris’ book includes a chapter on cremation, but for a much more in-depth treatment of America’s most popular alternative to burial, I highly recommend Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (And Other Lessons from the Crematory), by Caitlin Doughty.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

This bestseller is part expose, part manifesto, part sardonic autobiography written by a young woman who confronted her own (and by extension, our societal) fear of death by taking a job in a crematory. If you want to know what cremation is, and what it involves, this book is for you. If you appreciate dark humor, this book is for you. If your tastes turn to deeper reflection on the meaning of mortality, with perhaps a side of erudite, eclectic humor — this book is for you. The paperback version is coming at the end of September.

Doughty has already become, for many, this generation’s Jessica Mitford — a cultural crusader who uses dark humor and insider knowledge to cut to the core of our society’s denial of death. But your curriculum would not be complete without a reading of the original source herself. Pick up a copy of Mitford’s The American Way of Death Revisited, which should be easy to find at your local library or online. This 1998 update of the 1963 classic will tell you everything you need to know about the most pernicious practices of funeral purveyors (spoiler: they are still going on), while hinting (at the end) of the hope that has become the 21st century green burial movement.

In order to be the most informed funeral consumer possible, however, you’ll need to get (and keep on your bookshelf) the indispensable Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death, by Josh Slocum and Lisa Carlson. This encyclopedic compendium of state-by-state funeral laws (you’d be surprised what is not legally required in most states!) is a godsend for do-it-yourselfers and consumer advocates alike. Be sure to get the most recent (2011) version, which includes everything you need (and leaves out most of what you don’t) from the groundbreaking 1987 Caring for Your Own Dead by Lisa Carlson.

Enjoy! Oh, and when you’re done — share these books with a friend or loved one. Education occurs one reader at a time. Change occurs one conversation at a time. Happy reading!



The Natural Way

Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time in cemeteries. Cemeteries, of all kinds.

Since I’m a minister, you might consider that to be pretty normal – but my cemetery-going this year has not been professional in nature. It has, instead, been because of nature. Nature with a capital “N.”

I have been on sabbatical since the first of February, and am devoting part of my sabbatical study and travel to learning all I can about a subject that has become something of a passion (some might say a morbid obsession) of mine: natural burial.

You may have heard the term “green burial.” I prefer “natural burial” – for a number of reasons. For one thing, “green” has become a decidedly overused word, to the point of being practically meaningless. Then there are the crunchy-granola and politically-correct connotations that come with “green.” People seem to be scrambling to out-“green” one another these days, and big business has seen an opportunity to cash in on the trend. The funeral industry, sadly, is no different.

sign at the entrance to the Gupton Cemetery in Middle Tennessee
One cemetery I made sure to visit was that of my 18th and 19th century ancestors, in Middle Tennessee

Besides, “natural” is, to me, a more accurate description of the kind of burial of the dead I want to promote – through this blog, through activism and education, and (someday), through the creation of one or more natural burial sanctuaries. What could be more natural than burying our loved ones in the ground, to return to the earth, “dust to dust”? What could be more respectful than honoring those loved ones, while at the same time respecting the natural world from which come, of which we are a part, and to which we ultimately return? As Gordon Maupin, retired executive director of the Wilderness Center (which created Ohio’s first nature preserve cemetery, Foxfield Preserve), once told an interviewer, “Natural burial … is a good term because the thought is that the molecules that make up your body get back into the cycle of life pretty quickly.” Heck, it wasn’t that long ago that we didn’t need to use terms like “natural burial.” We just called it burial. But that was before the funeral industry began distancing Americans from death, dying and burial.

Which brings me back to cemeteries. In the past few months, I have visited numerous natural burial grounds, ranging from the very first of its kind in America (Ramsey Creek in South Carolina), to one in my home state of Ohio that is so new, it’s not yet open for business (Kokosing Nature Preserve). I have visited conventional cemeteries with their manicured lawns and plastic flowers, in the process paying my respects to deceased parents and loved ones. In the course of some genealogical research, I found and visited a cemetery (Gupton Cemetery in Middle Tennessee) where some of my 18th century ancestors are buried –- no doubt, quite buried quite naturally, since that’s the only way it was done back then. I’ve even participated in a natural burial, helping to shovel soil into the grave around a simple pine coffin –- a solemn, spiritual, and moving task that in modern America has been hired out to paid laborers and heavy machinery.

If you’re still with me -– if the wide-ranging but ever-growing field of natural or “green” burial interests you –- if you’re one of those folks who agrees with me that talking about death isn’t morbid, but is, in fact, “only natural” – then I invite you to join my email list to receive an email when a new blog entry is posted. Check back often, and keep your eyes open for upcoming topics including a natural burial “Summer Reading List,” another list of must-see movies and TV shows, reviews of natural burial sites across the U.S., information on how you can plan for a natural burial, and more. Welcome to “It’s Only Natural”!