Sometimes Ronnie Watts needs to pause. You can see him gathering himself, fighting back the tears that don't come as he talks about a funeral.
Watts, who's 71-years-old,is the manager of the Greenhaven Preserve in Eastover, SC.
Greenhaven is one of the first green cemeteries in the nation, and one of three in South Carolina. The other two, Ramsey Creek Preserve in Westminster, SC was the first in the nation and opened in 1998, and Dust to Dust in Swansea opened in September of 2009.
A green burial is not a new idea.
Before the Civil War, this was how most people were buried. Embalming was developed to preserve fallen soldiers during the Civil War so their bodies could be shipped home for burial.
A green burial means that there is no embalming, caskets must be biodegradable: a burial shroud, quilt or pine box will do, no vault and grave markers are usually a natural stone. It's also a lot less expensive than traditional burial or cremation.
According to Jim Dobbins, the general manager, funeral director and embalmer at Simplicity Lowcountry Cremation and Burial Services He says that a traditional service with embalming, casket, liner, open-close of the grave, hearse, cemetery plot will run about $9,000 and goes up from there. A cremation can run $4,000 and up. Green burials will typically run from $800-$4200, depending on the cemetery you choose.
Many people think that you need/must be embalmed.
It’s not the law.
Some funeral homes require it if you are having a visitation, but there is no law in South Carolina that requires it—you don’t even have to have a funeral director. Most of the green burial cemeteries in South Carolina can help you with things like transportation, if you need to wait a week before burial they can help with the storage of the body. They can help with urns and even pine boxes. If you want to know more about the laws and surveys of statewide funeral homes and pricing of each home in the state, they can be found here http://www.scfunerals.org/
Chapter one: A Calling Found Helping Those Say Goodbye
After a lifetime of jobs, Ronnie Watts has found his purpose.
But for Mr. Watts you can tell it’s more than a business.
He’s had lots of those.
From working for the state of South Carolina, owning and operating the Sumter Flea market, and making real estate sales, he says this all feels a little similar. “Seems like I’m still selling folks that place they’ll be for the end of their life.”
The funeral for the family that he began to talk about was for an adult daughter who had died tragically and unexpectedly.
After a visit to a funeral home they were in tears, they couldn’t come close to paying what the funeral would cost them.
They came to Greenhaven Preserve and Mr. Watts showed them around and talked to them about pricing. “You could see the relief, “ he said. “It was a beautiful funeral and I think just what the family wanted.” As he finishes the story, he smiles and looks around.
Mr. Watts, after all those other businesses, has found his calling.
His nephew had bought the land in Eastover that Greenhaven Preserve calls home. Having grown up in the area, his nephew thought he might come back. Then Mr. Watts read an article about the Ramsey Creek preserve in Westminister and thought he could do that right here in Eastover. The land that his nephew had bought had would be perfect.
At the Greenhaven Preserve currently 10 acres have been approved by DHEC, with another 30 acres approved and ready. The entire preserve is 364 acres, and about 80-100 burials can occur per/acre. A conservation easement guarantees that this land will remain a natural area and never be developed, it is part of the Congaree Land Trust.
Chapter two: Different Ways to Say Goodbye
Jim Dobbins is seeing changes in what people are looking for in a burial.
John Dobbins is the founder and general manager for Simplicity Low Country Funeral Home in Charleston. Mr. Dobbins had come to Greenhaven for a funeral. He was bringing the body of Jim Nordheim from Charleston.
“A lot more people are asking about green burials,” says Mr. Dobbins. He says it’s across the board, young folks in their 30’s, 40’s and 50’s who are not seeing the value in the 'traditional funerals,' and not just environmentalists looking to save the planet, he says. "It’s also the good old boys who have been around forever who say just put me in a pine box and put me in the ground.”
He says that allowing families to have choices is best. It could be a traditional burial, a cremation or a green burial—variety is good. It's about giving people options.
Most funerals these days cost upwards of $9,000 or more, says Mr. Dobbins, and cremations begin around $4,000. He knows this is how he makes his living. Pricing for Greenhaven is $2800 and Dust2Dust prices begin at $800 with the average being around $1350.
About green funerals, Mr. Dobbins says, “you know, standing out here and growing up in the country, I certainly would consider it.”
Chapter three: Saying Goodbye at Greenhaven Preserve
When her husband died, Cathy Nordheim called the natural burial cemetery she and her husband had fallen in love with.
For Cathy Nordheim and her husband Jim, they wanted a green burial. Before her husband got sick, they talked about where and how they should be buried. "He always said when he died, 'Just wrap me in a blanket and throw me in the woods,'” said Mrs. Nordheim.
She first heard about green burials from her sister up in Maine, who was talking about where their mother wanted to be buried, up in the mountains.
She said she loved Greenhaven because it was a natural burial. It wasn't an older cemetery looking to go green, but a cemetery that was created as a preserve. When she showed it to her husband, he said, “that’s where I want to go.” "We both immediately knew," she recalls. "This was where we wanted to be.” He wanted, she said, “to go back to the ground., back to the earth.”
Chapter four: A Natural, Simple, Inexpensive Way to Say Goodbye
Michael Bishop created a cemetery when he couldn't find a simple option for burial
In Swansea you will find Dust to Dust Green Burial and Nature Reserve Cemetery and Michael Bishop who is the owner/developer. The cemetery opened in 2009, and currently approximately 150 people have been buried in 8 by 10 plots at the cemetery.
One of the biggest differences between the two is the pricing. Dust to Dust is a little cheaper, with a simple burial starting at $800, and they allow mulching on top of the grave and loved ones can leave tokens at the grave sites. You can’t do those things at Greenhaven. You can, however, plant native plants at either cemetery, and both have a list of what is acceptable. Both also use granite or natural stone for headstones.
Mr. Bishop will tell you it wasn’t easy starting his cemetery. It is also part of a preserve, which means that the land can’t be anything but a cemetery, just like Greenhaven. Currently it’s two acres large with room to expand.
For Mr. Bishop, having a green burial cemetery was a no brainer. He and his wife had looked into arrangements for themselves when they passed and were astounded by the prices. Mr. Bishop thought there must be another way. A better way. A simpler way.
That’s what started Dust to Dust.
When he first opened he said lots of funeral homes and transports didn’t want to work with him. Even the local coroners were leery. He worked to help set up a body transport service and now, after eight years, it’s gotten a bit easier.
This is not Mr. Bishop’s full-time job: his full-time job is as an environmental investigator for Clemson Regulatory Services. He's also the mayor of Springdale.
Mr. Bishop gets offers for his cemetery all the time. He won’t sell. It was part of his family’s land,and his mother lives nearby.
Turkey and deer roam the area and you can hear crowing from roosters at a neighbor’s home nestled next to the cemetery.
The entire family is involved in Dust to Dust, with Mr. Bishop, his wife, and two sons pitching in to help. It’s become a family business and one that Mr. Bishop hopes will continue.
For Mr. Bishop, he wishes he'd named his cemetery a natural burial cemetery. That's only because for him, the conservation is important, but the thing that he loves about his cemetery is that it is a more natural, simpler way to be buried. "Our ancestors did these lifetimes ago, it’s pure and simple and inexpensive," And as Mr. Bishop will tell you, “I’m cheap.”
If you want to go the way of caskets, embalming, vaults, cemetery plots, visitation, or traditional burial, that’s great if you can afford it; otherwise, he says, “you're just burying money." But if these things give you peace of mind, then that is what you should do, he adds.
Frequently, Mr. Bishop is asked to come and speak to groups about Dust to Dust or talk to families in hospice. He says, “I’m not gonna sell you, I’m just gonna tell you.”
Once folks come out to a funeral at his place in Swansea, he says, they understand.
When you're, there, you don’t hear traffic. One could say it’s quiet as a tomb, if that tomb was full of birds, deer, squirrels, and turkeys. It’s peaceful. He says that folks come out to Dust to Dust to picnic, even if they don’t have family or friends buried there.
One of his favorite stories is about a man who came to see him. The man had a $10,000 life insurance policy. He found himself at Dust to Dust because he had been to numerous funeral homes, and his life insurance policy would still not be enough to cover costs. He didn’t want to leave his family in debt burying him. So they talked, and Mr. Bishop showed him around. He told him the pricing: $800 for burial, $300 for a pine box, and money for transport. The total was $1350, which left his family about $8,700. They wouldn’t be in debt; instead, they would be taking the trip of a lifetime.
For Mr. Bishop Dust to Dust is personal. It’s not just the cemetery his family owns but it’s mostly because regulators said he couldn’t do this. His cemetery Facebook page boasts over 1,000 friends and a 4.8 rating. Mr. Bishop is quite proud of this, “what other cemetery do you know that has over 1,000 friends--a cemetery.” He knows it’s a testament to what they do.
Chapter five: 'For me, I would have paid more to have this'
When Linda Perryman's husband Thomas was diagnosed with cancer, the two had already picked out their plots.
Linda Perryman and her husband Thomas Edwin picked out their plot together. Mr. Perryman had terminal cancer.
It’s a nice plot at Dust to Dust, next to an open field, and you can park your car close and a nearby tree casts a little bit of shade.
The plot is outlined in white rocks. A granite bench with their nicknames and a stick figure doodle holding a heart, drawn by Mr. Perryman for his wife, is also etched into the bench.
It’s not even been a year, and it’s easy to see the love Mrs. Perryman had for her husband has not faded and the grief that widows and widowers know all too well is still evident when she talks.
Her husband died at home, because of that--and because she was acting as her own funeral director-- she was able to take her time saying goodbye, getting a chance to wash and dress her husband. “It was healing,” she says, not having to have someone get him shortly after he passed.
The next day she followed her husband to the cemetery.
When she told her family the plans she and her husband made, they were not quite sure. They had never seen or heard about green burials. “They thought it would make it more tragic for me," she remembers. "That it was an odd thing to do. After they saw everything that occurred, they all absolutely loved the option. And said we didn’t even know you could do this." She says, “I know, thank God for Michael Bishop and Dust to Dust that we could do this. It changed a lot of people’s minds”.
“I know that some people have reservations because it’s so inexpensive and they feel like they are not spending enough money on their loved one. For me, I would have paid more to have this.”