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Before Catherine Still died at age 42 on May 15, after a long battle with leukemia, she knew how she wanted to be buried. Her body was to be refrigerated, not preserved with embalming fluid. She would lie in a simple, $800 pine coffin, not some fancy metal casket. And as a lifelong nature lover, she wanted everything to be biodegradable. "This was a way for her to give back to the circle of life," says Tommy Still, 59, her husband of 14 years. "It's just nature's way of going back to where you came from."

On May 18, Catherine was laid to rest according to her wishes at Ramsey Creek Preserve, a 70-acre spread outside Westminster, S.C. It's one of four cemeteries in the United States created exclusively for eco-friendly internment. No cement vaults, no massive granite tombstones. Green cemeteries are presently a drop in the $14.3 billion U.S. death-care industry bucket, but their numbers are expected to double next year, says Joe Sehee of the Green Burial Council. And more than a dozen conventional cemeteries have set aside green burial areas. "This is a return to a form of burial that was once standard practice," says Mark Harris, author of Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial. "This idea of a dust-to-dust burial speaks to a lot of people."

Eighty green burials have taken place at Ramsey Creek, and another 300 plots are presold, says Dr. Billy Campbell, who, with his wife Kimberley, opened the grounds in 1998. Billy, 51, grew up in rural Westminster and is the town's only family physician. His interest in combining simpler burials with environmental concerns started early. "I had a teacher who said he wanted to be put in a burlap sack when he died and have a tree planted on him. I thought, 'Cool!'" His father's death in 1985 spurred him to action. "I just wanted a wooden casket, something plain and simple," Campbell says. The funeral director had other ideas, offering a casket guaranteed not to leak for 100 years. "I was like, 'How do we get our money back if it does leak in 100 years?'"

Left with few options, he bought a fancy casket, had his father embalmed and buried him in a conventional cemetery. The funeral cost $6,000. (Today burials can average more than $8,000.) "We could have saved five or six acres of land for that money," says Billy, whose ultimate dream is to see a million acres of eco-friendly burial grounds open across the country.

Billy met a kindred spirit in Kimberley, 48, a former actress born in England, at a bookstore in Clemson, S.C. The two married in 1987 and began sketching out ideas to restore and preserve a stretch of land they owned along Ramsey Creek. The result: their green cemetery, where dirt paths wind through woodlands dotted with small grave mounds. It looks more like a nature preserve than a conventional cemetery. The two dig each grave with shovels, a four-hour chore that costs between $250 and $500, depending on size and location. Plots cost $1,950—as much as or more than at a conventional cemetery—but any profits fund land restoration. Headstones are unobtrusive, generally of local fieldstone (gathered by the Campbells), and are etched with names, dates and epitaphs. Before the burial ceremony, Kimberley scatters flower petals and pine needles in the grave. "Here you don't dwell on death," says Billy, pointing to delicate mountain laurel blooming on the hillside above a burbling creek, as a wood thrush twitters nearby. "It is about life."

There were questions at first. "Everyone wants to know if animals dig up the bodies," Kimberley says. (Answer: no.) The local funeral industry was skeptical too. "They were seen as renegades," says Randy Harreld, owner of PalmettoCare Funeral Home in nearby Greenville, who now works with the Campbells to provide green services. "But eventually this will become mainstream."

For Tommy Still, Ramsey Creek is a place of solace: The couple discovered the cemetery four years ago, and "Catherine loved it right away." The two often walked the trails that now pass by her grave. Family and friends, he says, "will come back here and bring a picnic and go out and wade in the creek. We can celebrate the life of someone we loved. This is, I think, the way it is supposed to be."

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  • With Michaele Ballard / Westminster,
  • S.C..