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.
The Mixed Legacy of Early Conservationists
There is an awful history of early land protection advocates in the USA, and their association with racism and eugenics. Yes, John Muir was a racist, who used an ethnic slur to refer to Black people, and called Native Americans “dirty”.
More horrible is the example of Madison Grant (1860-1937). Grant helped found the Save the Redwoods organization, the American Bison Society (to bring back the bison from the edge of extinction), and the New York Zoological Society. He helped push through the establishment of both Glacier and Denali National Parks.
But he also wrote a toxic book called The Passing of the Great Race (1916), which called for putting “undesirable races” in ghettos, forcing sterilizations of others and a dictatorship of the Nordic Race over “inferior races” which would be “humanely” eliminated over time. The German translation of the book was published in 1925, and Hitler wrote Grant to tell him, “Your book is my Bible”. Shamefully, Grant also supported displaying a Congolese Mbuti pygmy, Ota Benga, in the great ape house at the New York Zoo. In addition, he is largely responsible for the restrictive immigration law of 1924, and anti-miscegenation laws of the time.
The treatment of African Americans in funeral practice and the history of segregated cemeteries is yet another stain on our history. Natural burial, based on the premise that more land may be conserved to improve the lives of all of us, provides an opportunity to change course by offering an environmentally-friendly exit to everyone. Cemeterians I know are deeply concerned not only about the running of the cemetery, but about offering social solutions regarding access—including affordability and proximity—for all.
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.
Cultural Appropriation and Conservation Burial
The assertion that environmentalists use ecological science to take over indigenous land “even now” is false, and decades behind current land conservation practice. Saying that green burial is a “return” to previous traditions is also somehow insulting to those who came before us and could even be construed as an attitude of cultural appropriation in and of itself.
For instance, while embalming has been de rigueur in the North for 150 years or more, here in the rural areas at the edge of the Southern Appalachians, we only adopted embalming in living memory. My grandfather never owned a car. They had no electricity until he was in his 40s, nor inside toilets until I was a teenager. They did not have the money to afford a fancy funeral; casket making and burial was done by the men in the church and did not involve embalming. Bodies were buried directly into the ground without a vault. Green burial is definitely not cultural appropriation around here, and 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.
But even more disturbing is the assertion that environmentalists still use science as a cudgel against indigenous peoples, as in the statements “To white environmentalists of the 1960s and onward caring for the earth did not offer any gray area. The goal was to establish more protected lands, it did not matter if the land was occupied by Indigenous people…” and “As we see even now, racist views were obfuscated behind numbers and statistics and pitched to white environmentalists as irrefutable science.” “Even now”?
Conflating current conservation burial practice with the racist pseudo-science early environmentalists used while claiming cultural appropriation seems disingenuous at best: “Just like in the early environmental movement, there exists a subtle, yet purposeful inclination to justify the need for Green Burial in the language of science, a supposedly impartial judge of right and wrong. …but what we fail to rectify when we sell our plots is the deeply personal, existential and relational choices of those who have already discovered this path.”
Current publications of the sciences of conservation biology and restoration ecology speak a very different message. The Bears Ears controversy has highlighted the work of scientists to work together. Esselen tribal members have been awarded the stewardship their ancestral land with the support of the Western Rivers Conservancy. Scientific journals like Conservation Biology and Ecological Restoration, which have been preaching the gospel on the need to include indigenous people for at least a couple of decades, is must reading for anyone interested in conservation burial. The evidence is abundant.
The father of restoration ecology, Bill Jordan, wrote a book called The Sunflower Forest that spoke of the power of ecological restoration to restore the unity of natural and human communities. He was explicit in his crediting native peoples, especially the Navajo, in shaping his philosophy.
I would be remiss in forgetting to mention the deeply offensive assertion that the work of 21st century green burial advocates should also be “erased”. Although they have indeed been mostly “white women of a certain age”, they have been responsible in no small part in opening the eyes of their own cultural subsets, primarily white Christian and unaffiliated communities where the change was most needed. The inference that they should have been more inclusive belies the fact that they had no business crusading beyond their own sphere of influence. Any attempts to subvert the practices of other religions or races would be—and in some documented instances was—rightly rebuffed. It is not accurate or fair to blame the messengers who have demonstrated the courage and devotion to champion an environmental movement when the status quo in their own communities was resistant.
Racism, Antisemitism, and “Unmarked Graves in the Woods”
A major focus of Elicone’s essay is devoted to asking “what if” questions through the minds of stereotypical Jews, African Americans, and persons of other cultural and religious groups, all based on the false assumption that natural burial denies memorialization of any kind. “When monumentation and headstones are so quickly dismissed as antithetical to Green Burial activism, would this not confuse and trouble a Jewish family, who have been practicing Green Burial for generations, and desire a physical monument to their legacy?” she writes, and “We don’t often consider that it might be triggering to a Jewish or Armenian family when we suggest an unmarked grave in the woods.”
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 Jewish section is located on a wooded hilltop, overlooking the Upper Meadow, though that majority of Jewish families have so far chosen the woods instead. “Unmarked graves in the woods” 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.
Since the specter of Jewish concentration camp survivors has been raised by these questions, I will mention that we have buried two, including one that preferred burial in the woods away from everything. Another war veteran, transported from his adopted Boston home, who fought for Israel in 1948 and 1967 is also buried in the Jewish section.
Our experience rejects the concept of monolithic ethnic groups, having observed time and again that what individual people of color, Native Americans, Jewish people, and other ethnic groups believe about burial practice is unpredictable. It is no small measure of white privilege to presume you understand how people of color or Jewish people feel about such issues as “burial in the woods”.
Yes, there is a tradition of large and lengthy homegoing funeral observances in some Black communities, particularly Christian ones. Yes, embalming makes prolonged homegoings easier, but some black and people of color, particularly Muslims, do not embalm. Over the years, people of color buried at Ramsey Creek have indicated many beliefs, including non-religious, Muslim, Christian, and Baha’i.
Race and religion are not the only contributing factors to choosing a disposition option. What about white cultural practices—urban/rural, rich/poor, Southern/Northern, Eastern/Western, educated/poorly educated, religious/unaffiliated, and the list goes on? People’s decisions regarding green and conservation burial often are a result of the things they love, and many people of all colors and orientations enjoy walking in the woods, bird-watching, paddling and biking. Those numbers are increasing with the younger generations.
The bottom line is that we are not shaming people for making another choice. Yes, I would love to see the majority of people chose conservation burial, but it is a choice, and so is the choice of whether to have a marker.
Memorialization in Natural Burial Cemeteries
As to memorialization, we very much want people to leave a positive mark—well beyond a “trace”—upon the Earth when they die. To assist families in finding the most resonant way to do that, we offer a variety of gravestones and plantings that are in keeping with our restoration plan, and we make it easy for families to choose appropriate wildflowers from our website and when they visit the Preserve.
Many years ago, Kimberley and I expected that people choosing green burial would not want a physical, inert marker. We thought that many would prefer a living marker, like a tree or a colony of rare plants. Even in the days before high speed internet, we thought virtual markers with graveside access to what I called “life history archives” might be a gamechanger.
We were wrong. We learned early on that most people—at least in our market—wanted a physical marker, and that failure to provide one could not only be disrespectful of traditionalists, it could seriously interfere with our financial success, critical to protecting and restoring even more land and making those all-important connections between human and natural communities.
Our solution at Ramsey Creek was very site-specific and actually solved an ecological issue we had not yet addressed: restoring the “float” of stones removed by the early white settlers—or their slaves—and placed in piles near the fields or used in construction of chimneys, or other building project. These rocks are important for ant communities that have such important relationships with plant communities (birdfoot violets, viola pedate, have a strong ant-plant mutualism. The violets’ seeds have a sugary/fatty attachment called an elaiosome that the ants take to the colony. They later dispose of the remaining seed where they also deposit dead ants and other waste that fertilize the seeds. Float stones are also important for snakes, small rodents, and lizards.
These stones can be engraved with names and dates, but we eschew representational art. We even bought the equipment to engrave the stones and trained a worker to do the engraving. We do not allow representational art on stones, and do not allow grave decorations with photos and other memorabilia, potted plants, windmills, elves, fancy birdhouses, concrete frogs, etc. We do not allow “free-lance” grave “cleaning” or the planting of non-native plants. We want a natural aesthetic.
But I have talked with some client/providers about the possibility of having a section where more exuberant celebration and memorialization could be allowed as long as it does not degrade the area ecologically. It is not my aesthetic, but if it helps a project remain financially successful, and opens the project up to ethnic groups that desire more decoration or different ways to memorialize, be it rosaries or photos or concrete frogs, that could be considered. On the time scales that matter, these displays are unlikely to endure.
The Environment—and Science—as the Common Denominator
“When conservation cemetery salespeople from a Christian or nonreligious background speak to Jewish families who are uneasy about the lack of a grave marker, they must acknowledge the trauma, instead of dismissing it as “not understanding the point” of conservation burial.”
But there IS a point to conservation burial, and it is not the same as in other types of cemeteries. All conservation burial is green burial, but not all green burial is conservation burial. Green burial is about how we bury. Conservation burial goes beyond the green burial process and focuses on how to integrate burial with saving and restoring land and, in many cases, providing a multi-dimensional human and ecological space in which to celebrate life.
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.
The moral to the story is that perhaps it is best to evaluate the conservation work of others through their lens, and make sure that you have all the facts. 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.
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