By Dr. Billy Campbell
As natural burial begins at last to take hold in the US, we must turn our attention to exploring the origins of conservation and our intentions toward developing future spaces with integrity. Not that we have been ignorant to issues of social, racial, and religious justice—in fact, equal access and particular attention to cultural norms have been at the heart of our work at Ramsey Creek Preserve since its inception in 1998. A recent article called “Whose Green Burial Is It Anyway?” written by Corinne Elicone, and published jointly by the Order of the Good Death and the Collective for Radical Death Studies, charged the conservation and natural burial communities with several failings in the areas of cultural and racial sensitivity.
The author’s allegations of racism, antisemitism, ethnocentrism, and various other offences compel me to respond with my knowledge as a student of conservation and restoration ecology, as well as my personal experience as a longtime burial ground owner and steward here in South Carolina.
There is an awful history of early land protection advocates in the USA, and their association with racism and eugenics. But what Elicone’s article does not recognize is that those of us who advocate for land protection through burial have long acknowledged the deplorable mistakes of the past by men like Muir, Grant, and many others. While we abhor their racist actions and beliefs, we are determined to build on their true contributions to land conservation and protection. Restoration ecology and conservation biology are sciences, both relatively new and vibrant, that are employed to further goals that benefit everyone. Modern environmentalism is an inclusive social movement, one that is built on the ethics of sound science and social justice.
Elicone asserts that green burial is an example of cultural appropriation. But there is evidence that it has been an uninterrupted practice in rural areas throughout the country. To assert that bodies buried unembalmed without a vault or steel casket is appropriating Jewish and Muslim burial practices is to forget the history of the human race. As to indigenous peoples and the appropriation of land, there is significant evidence of the current conservation community’s efforts to return land to its original owners and work together to find ways to work in harmony.
At Ramsey Creek, there has always been a designated space for observant Jews, including a gate of standing stones, a carved stone bowl for ritual cleansing, and separation from the rest of the projects by trails on all sides. The cemetery is also home to many people of color, people of the Muslim faith, and all who wish to be buried naturally. The cemetery consists of several designated sections, though most choose the woods, regardless of religion or ethnic origin.
“Unmarked graves in the woods”, another assumption made about green burial in general made in the article, is simply not part of our practice, nor is it done at any of the top conservation burial grounds associated with the Conservation Burial Alliance. The inference that any state-sanctioned cemetery anywhere, green or not, buries bodies in communal shallow graves in the woods to be forgotten is as far from the natural burial ethic as one can get.
We must rely on science to guide us. We are not “subtle” about using the language of science. We are not “justifying” what we are doing with science. We started with the premise that endangered landscapes like southern prairies are worth saving and restoring, and that some people would find “through my death, a small piece of the planet can be healed and protected” comforting.
But protecting, enhancing or recreating a natural landscape is a scientific endeavor. If you are promising to do this in the memory of your clients, it requires you understand the ecology of the area, the habitat in question, and the process and methods to make it happen. We do not need to apologize to anyone or any people for what we offer or the science we use. It is a choice. If that is what they want, we can provide it.
We recognize the emotional nature of the work we do, but we hope that our work is motivated by other factors, including the integrity of those who come to this with clear intentions and a full appreciation of science. Above all, we need to recognize that the green burial movement is about preserving the environment for everyone, regardless of race, cultural norms, or other factors. The planet depends on it.
Dr. Billy and Kimberley Campbell are the owners of Ramsey Creek Preserve, opened in 1996, the first green cemetery and also the first conservation burial ground in the United States. The Campbells are dedicated to advocating for and consulting to help create conserved and restored land throughout the US.
To read the complete blogpost with references, go to Memorial Ecosystems, Inc. https://www.memorialecosystems.com/blog
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