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.

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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 (http://www.honeycreekwoodlands.com/), 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.

 

 

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.

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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.