About This Saving Land
Conservation burial was pioneered by Kimberley and Billy Campbell, who opened Ramsey Creek Preserve, the first green cemetery in the U.S., on land protected with a conservation easement by Upstate Forever in South Carolina in 1997. Since then, numerous land trusts have partnered on natural burial initiatives to preserve and restore lands and celebrate life in a meaningful and lasting way.
Lee Webster is a funeral reform advocate, educator, writer, former president of the Green Burial Council and co-founder of the Conservation Burial Alliance. She writes from the foothills of the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
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Explore the Land
Within the course of a year, veteran conservationists Heidi Hannapel and Jeff Masten’s parents received terminal diagnoses. They each took leaves of absence from their careers to support their parents’ dying at home. Emerging from these life changing events, they recognized they could apply their conservation experience to building a local, community project that could change the way people approach life, death and burial.
“Land trust projects are already deeply personal places for people,” Masten says. “When I attended the Land Trust Alliance’s Rally in 2006, I was inspired by a presentation by Billy Campbell that reinforced the conservation strategy between community, land protection and green burial. Conservation burial piqued my curiosity and became a reality when we founded Bluestem.”
After 40 visits to conservation and natural burial grounds and five years of walking parcels, studying maps and community networking, Masten and Hannapel found the right land for Bluestem, a conservation cemetery, on 87 acres in the Triangle region of North Carolina. The property is rich in cultural and agricultural history, set among the rolling hills and open fields. Protection of its rural character, wildlife and stream corridors, and the restoration of former agricultural fields into prairie grasslands, is ongoing. Land protection occurs in tandem with natural burial. Bluestem welcomed its first burials in the summer of 2022.
Triangle Land Conservancy and Eno River Association are two independent land trusts that have signed on as co-holders of Bluestem’s conservation easement. Jessica Sheffield, executive director at Eno River Association, says that they pursued this collaboration expressly for its dedication to “connecting with one another, to our deceased and to the land.”
These two land trusts share the responsibility for monitoring Bluestem’s conservation easement. They will also share a stewardship endowment, creating opportunities to lessen the burden of monitoring obligations. Both land trusts bring their resources and membership clout to the project. Common values attract these members and donors to both land trusts and to Bluestem. In addition, Bluestem sells plots and charges for events on the property, with a portion of that income donated to the land trusts to support their conservation missions.
John Christian Phifer, executive director of Larkspur Conservation at Taylor Hollow, a conservation burial ground in Tennessee, suggests that natural burial as a conservation strategy transcends size and meets missions simply by focusing on relationships. “Larkspur’s land trust partner, The Nature Conservancy, understands that connecting people to the land is the key. Burial does this in a way that is lasting and deeply personal. That translates effortlessly to the heart of every land trust’s mission.”
Some land trusts have feared mission creep, wondering how this model can fit the mission for large and small land trusts alike. “Conservation cemeteries can be constructed in different models,” says Masten. “A land trust can be an easement holder, an operator or a partner. The land trust decides its role and how it wants to contribute or be connected. Either way, it contributes to a significant and profound community conservation project that has local environmental impacts and can change the way the community thinks about burial.”
“The mission of any land trust is both conservation and stewardship,” says Ron Strom, former TLC board president and longtime community network supporter. “Not only does green burial offer a more environmentally friendly alternative to conventional burial or cremations, the conversion of conventional farmland into native prairie, the planting of carbon-capture, deep-rooted grasses and the creation of a trail network all further the public benefits mission of a land trust.”
Like most conservation projects, volunteers are key. In one year, Bluestem built a volunteer corps of 100 people. One of those is Steve Gartrell, a career urban planner with roots in biology who took on the role of hiking trip docent with TLC after his (second) retirement. On a recent spring day, he led two tours through the trails at Bluestem, introducing TLC members to the property and to volunteers and friends of the burial ground.
Visitors to Bluestem come to explore a more permanent presence on the property for themselves when their time comes; others show up because a loved one is already interred there. Family members of those buried return to walk the property and participate in workdays, blazing trails, installing birdhouses and leading educational events or hikes like Gartrell, who “truly enjoys leading others to nature.”
Whatever their motive, volunteers of various land trusts and community groups gather at burial grounds with shared purposes of stewarding land and supporting families in their grieving, resulting in lasting relationships that benefit all.
“For me, Bluestem is the place that I have been looking for,” Gartrell says. “A place that combines my love of nature and the natural world—in the present, with enjoying its beauty and serenity, while also helping others to lay their loved ones to their final rest—and in the future with finding my own final place of rest.”
“I think this is what Billy Campbell was talking about when he began this conversation 25 years ago,” says Masten. “Our bodies as gifts to the land, the land as a gift to us. Conservation burial is a means for us to act in a tangible way, contributing to climate resiliency while creating whole families and communities of spiritually and financially invested land stewards.”
For more information about what land trusts need to know when considering partnering with a natural burial initiative, visit the Conservation Burial Alliance’s website at conservationburialalliance.org.