Memorial Ecosystems: Cleaner Burials Conserve Land for the Living

What do you get when you cross a passionate land conservationist with a doctor who wants to take burial practices back to a simpler time? You get Dr. Billy Campbell, who pioneered the idea of “conservation burial” at his Ramsey Creek Preserve here in the Upstate, in Westminster. His company, Memorial Ecosystems, is a model for other sites that have followed, but Ramsey Creek was the first in the United States to use a burial site to fund and maintain a nature preserve.

Situated on a beautiful property in Oconee County, the preserve has a creek with waterfalls, a diverse array of native vegetation, and footpaths. The original 33 acres when it opened in 1998 have expanded to 78 acres, and in 2006, an agreement with Upstate Forever secured the site’s perpetual protection regardless of who is managing the preserve or the company.

Conservation burial goes beyond what’s known as “green burial,” which may simply refer to funeral homes and cemeteries forgoing embalming and using more environmentally friendly burial practices. That’s a step in the right direction, says Campbell’s wife Kimberley, but much more can be done.

Campbell is the only doctor in the town of Westminster, and Kimberley Campbell runs the office for Memorial Ecosystems out of the same building that houses his medical practice. In his TEDx Greenville talk, he jokes, “I can honestly say as a family practice doctor, I’m cradle to grave.”

In the TEDx talk, Campbell says, “We take modern conservation science and restoration ecology to design and create spaces that are not, in the best definition, cemeteries. These are multidimensional social and ecological spaces where the burials don’t overwhelm the naturalness of what is there.”

Or, putting it another way, Kimberley Campbell says, “If we look like a cemetery, we’ve screwed up. Hopefully it’s where there’s a sense of life and death and the circle of life. Hopefully people are overwhelmed as much by the sense of life as by the presence of death.”

If graves in the preserve are marked (and this is not a requirement), it is with a simply engraved stone that comes from the ground in or around the burial site. GPS/GIS is used for grave location, with fixed survey points for reference. All of the earth that is removed for the burial is replaced into the grave, creating a burial mound that gradually settles and becomes part of the landscape.

Both of the Campbells refer to the style of burial they do as “traditional” burial, preferring the term “contemporary burial” for what has become the norm in recent history—the use of embalming, sealed coffins, and concrete vaults. All of those things, Campbell says, serve to keep nature at bay, preventing the natural return to the earth, and the handling of the process by funeral workers who are often strangers turns family members into spectators, removed from that part of the cycle of life.

A 2013 documentary, Dying Green, gives a detailed look at the Campbells’ foray into the world of conservation burial, from Billy Campbell’s early inspirations for the idea to the community’s initial response to the venture. The film summarizes what the preserve does, including a service and burial, and it gives some statistics about why green funerals are important: “Every year, contemporary funeral services bury enough steel to construct another Golden Gate bridge and enough concrete to build a two-lane highway from New York to Detroit.”

Campbell’s vision, outlined both in the film and his TEDx talk, is to secure one million acres for conservation burial all over the country. He is a founding board member of the Green Burial Council and consults with others who are interested in creating such spaces in their communities. Other preserves have opened in New York State, Ohio, Georgia, Virginia, and Florida, and there are projects in the works in Florida, Tennessee, and North Carolina.

Ramsey Creek Preserve is open to the public for hiking, picnicking, and even weddings and baby blessings. A chapel on the premises is available for services of all kinds, and that, too, was a conservation effort. Once a country church that had fallen into disuse and disrepair, it was going to be torn down, but Campbell asked if he could move it and restore it—adding a resurrection of sorts to his living burial ground.

All photos courtesy of Memorial Ecosystems/Ramsey Creek Preserve.

Sharon Purvis is a freelance writer and editor who makes her home with her husband in Duncan, South Carolina. You can find more of her work at