Chris was very much in touch with nature. The [woodland grave] where he’s buried at Ramsey Creek is the kind of place I could see him camping out in for the weekend, just sitting there by the stream, listening to the water and the birds, watching everything emerge from its winter slumber, like it is now. And I’m sure he’s pushing it all along.
— Rebecca Cochran, cousin of Chris Nichols
More than seventy gravesites lie scattered across the burial ground of Ramsey Creek Preserve, an ecological cemetery that sits in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, just outside Westminster, South Carolina. But if you hike the two-mile network of rough trail that winds through these thirty acres of heavily-forested wood, you might never know bodies were buried here. You'll come across no upright headstone or monument to the dead, no burial plot marked off with stone edging or linked chain. Nowhere will you find vases of perfect plastic flowers, live plants blooming in cellophane-wrapped pottery.
What greets you when you join the trail at a gap in the trees that serves as an entrance to Ramsey Creek is an eastern woodland timbered with mostly yellow and short-leaf pine, half a dozen varieties of oak, American beech. In the understory white and pink flowering dogwood rise from the matted forest floor, with chalk maples and a broad-leafed rhododendron the locals call deer tongue laurel. Altogether some 225 different plant species cover this landscape, a few of them rare and endangered, like the crested coral root, a tiny, leafless orchid seen nowhere else in this county.
White-tailed deer regularly pass through here on their way to the big wilds of Sumter National Forest, three miles west. Wild turkey has been spotted in the brush, the occasional black bear. The Ramsey Creek itself, a narrow, curving stream that fixes the property's eastern border, teems with redeye bass, chubbs and yellow-fin shiners. The creek rushes the granite shoals forcefully at one stretch, producing a din loud enough to be heard nearly anywhere you stand in the preserve.
Walking through Ramsey Creek is to experience Carolina country as it must have looked when Cherokee still roamed these hillsides, before cotton farmers settled the piedmont in the early 1800s and began clearing land. With one important difference: dozens of flat fieldstones that lie at irregular intervals along the trail's edge. Half buried in the dirt and covered over with vegetation and decaying pine needles, the stones are often inconspicuous enough that you wouldn't be the first hiker to walk right by them. But stumble onto one, brush it clean, and you'll see that its face is engraved with a name, range of dates and, often, an epitaph. These native fieldstones, you then realize, are more than the mere product of local geology: they're gravemarkers, and below each one a body or its ashes lies buried.
Ramsey Creek is a cemetery, but its grounds are so natural, so free of the usual funereal structures that you could wander into it by chance on an afternoon hike through these hills and never even know you've strayed into a graveyard. “Visitors are surprised when they first see Ramsey Creek because they expect it to look like a regular cemetery with a little bit of nature around it,” says Billy Campbell, a 50-something Westminster family physician who founded Ramsey Creek and serves as president of Memorial Ecosystems, the cemetery’s parent company. “We’re a woodland burial ground, an actual forest where burials also take place.”
Since the fall of 1998, when a stillborn infant named Hope was laid to rest in a small grave Billy dug with two rafting buddies, some seventy-five burials have been conducted in these woods. In keeping with its leafy environs, each has followed a natural course. “We take a dust to dust approach to burial," Billy tells me one bright afternoon, taking a break from hauling construction debris from an abandoned country church he’d recently installed in a clearing at the burial wood’s edge, for future use as an all-faith chapel. Remains are returned directly to the earth, in either plain cloth shrouds or simple coffins manufactured from non-toxic, easily biodegradable materials, like cardboard or pine. Vaults are banned, embalmed remains prohibited. "Our idea is to allow physical bodies to degrade naturally and be incorporated into other living things, the trees and flowers,” explains Billy. “We want them to be caught up in life's continuing cycles of growth and death, decomposition and rebirth."
In Billy’s green scheme – his resurrection of an ages-old, traditional burial he dubs “people plantings” – the dead literally nourish and sustain a living forest. When Billy gets around to punching out a floor-to-ceiling window in a part of the chapel that backs onto his cemetery, visitors will be able to sit in pews and take in the native piedmont their beloved departed are perpetuating for future generations. No stately monument or grand headstone will disturb the picturesque scene before them. Ramsey Creek allows only small, flat fieldstones collected on site or taken from a similar geological stratum to serve as gravemarkers; within a hundred years, even they will weather into the landscape. Eventually, the only sign that bodies were ever buried here will be the wood itself. For Billy, that’s the whole idea. A fitting monument to a life well lived isn’t an inert headstone devoted to one’s memory, he asserts: it’s more good earth. “What finer legacy could you leave behind than acres of beautiful woods, your final act in death contributing to the preservation of wild life?”
Sharon Perry can’t say for sure just how her son Chris Nichols learned about Ramsey Creek but isn’t surprised he had. An ecological cemetery in the middle of the woods is just the kind of place her “gentle New Age hippie” would have heard about in the circle of environmentalists in which he travelled. It was also, she knew, an idea sure to appeal to a twenty-eight-year old stone mason who lived on a ten-acre farm in the rural, northwest corner of South Carolina and supplied vegetarian restaurants in nearby Greenville with his own organic produce.
Sharon first heard of Ramsey Creek herself in fall of 2003, just weeks after she’d taken Chris to the emergency room when he’d called to tell her he’d gone to the bathroom and found a large pool of blood in the toilet bowl. At the Greenville hospital a team of doctors started Chris through a protracted battery of procedures – CAT scans, MRIs, a colonoscopy. In mid-October, they announced their diagnosis: Chris had aggressive colon cancer. Surgery to remove the cancerous tumor would dangerously compromise Chris’ immune system, they said, and scheduled him instead for radical chemotherapy.
In the following months Sharon and Chris shuttled back and forth to Greenville for the treatments and, with the rest of the family, worked to remain upbeat. Early on, sometime after his mother had shorn his beloved dreadlocks – a moment Sharon, who’d always hated her son’s hair, calls “bittersweet” -- Chris broached the possibility of his death. “Mom, I’m not ready to die. I don’t want to die,” he told her. “But if that’s what happens, I want you to look at this place in Westminster that does green burial.” Sharon had never heard of the concept but didn’t want to pursue it, still hopeful of a cure and, by her own admission, “not ready to talk about death.” By New Year, however, even she had to admit there seemed little reason for optimism. Despite all the chemo treatments, cancer had spread into Chris’ liver, lungs, and pancreas, progressing, as she says, “like a fast-moving monster.”
All this time, Chris’ medical team had offered little on his prognosis, sensing perhaps the family’s reluctance to accept the fact of Chris’ decline. At the end of January, the family finally sat down with Chris’ primary physician to ask the hard questions. In so many words the doctor told them the truth of what they were facing: Chris was dying, and the end was just a matter of time.
The family moved Chris into a comfortable lake house that friends had offered them – one that Chris’s dad, James, a home builder, had constructed and lived two doors down from -- and in mid-February called in hospice. Sharon and her sister, Debbie, a nurse, attended to Chris around the clock. In the mornings and evenings they prayed with him, every night they gave him sponge baths; the two read him stories aloud and sat quietly with him. Visitors came and went. At the beginning of May Chris took a marked turn for the worse, and the family decided the time had come to talk with him about funeral arrangements. Jim, Sharon’s oldest son, offered to raise the subject. On a quiet afternoon when his brother was alert, he went into Chris’ room, sat down next to his bed and, admitting later that “it was all I could do to get it out,” asked his brother if he’d thought about what kind funeral and burial he’d like. Tilting his head, Chris considered a moment before telling Jim that he wanted a “green burial” at an eco cemetery over in Westminster, so he could join “all the other living organisms in the ground.” As for the service itself, he said, growing more animated, he wanted everyone to wear tie-dyed tee-shirts. For Jim, his brother’s wish to be buried at Ramsey Creek was remarkable on many levels, including the cemetery’s proximity to their home. “At the time, Ramsey Creek was only one of two places in the country where you could do the kind of green burial Chris wanted,” says Jim, “and it just happens to be no more than 20 minutes from here.”
From the book’s Resource Guide, which profiles all the natural cemeteries in the United States and lists those planned both in the U.S. and Canada.
111 West Main Street
Westminster, SC 29693
Place: A seventy-acre largely wooded preserve in the shadow of South Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Burial of bodies and ashes are sited within the second-growth forest that runs down to the Ramsey Creek; scatterings take place in a meadow of wildflowers. The ground’s parent company is in the process of securing an additional twenty acres of neighboring land.
Costs: Burial of body ($2,000 to $3,000, depending on location). Burial of cremated remains ($500 to $1,000). Scattering of cremated remains ($250). Opening/closing grave ($250 to $500). Grave Marker ($50).