Dust to Dust Green Burial and Nature Reserve Cemetery, Swansea, S.C.
   
Media and Press

From Green Burial on the Rise as Library Screens Dying Green, Free Times, Wednesday, April 10, 2013, by Eva Moore
The first time Free Times wrote about Dust to Dust Green Burial Cemetery, in late 2010, there were only a few bodies buried there.

But the Swansea cemetery’s popularity has grown. Around 40 bodies are now buried in the sandy Lexington County soil there, and founder Michael Bishop sold 58 plots last year alone.

Dust to Dust’s success stems from a lot of things, including Bishop’s tenacity, but it also shows a shift in how some Americans want to be buried.

Embalming, caskets and vaults all prevent a body from decomposing naturally in the earth, and embalming chemicals may pollute the groundwater. Even cremation, for years the modest, environmental choice, requires a ton of fuel and may pollute the air.

This week, the Richland Library screens Dying Green, a short documentary about the green burial movement, followed by a panel discussion featuring the film’s director and producer, Ellen Tripler; longtime funeral consumer advocate Gere Fulton; Greenhaven Preserve developer Van Watts; and Bishop. The screening is in partnership with the Funeral Consumers Alliance and the Indie Grits Festival.

Dying Green takes a look at the Ramsey Creek Preserve and its founders Billy and Kimberly Campbell. The Westminster, S.C, cemetery, founded in 1998, was the nation’s first green cemetery, and has become a model for green cemeteries nationwide.

“Conservation burial,” as it’s termed by the Ramsey Creek founders, promotes not only simple burial without caskets or chemicals, but also maintaining the burial ground as a nature preserve, without pesticides or neatly mowed lawns.

In fact, South Carolina has become a leader in the green burial movement. The state is now home to several cemeteries that offer burials that don’t harm the environment. Among the most recent is Greenhaven Preserve in Eastover; its founder Van Watts will be on Monday’s panel.

Meanwhile, Dust to Dust is unique even among green burial cemeteries, because for founder Michael Bishop, it’s been as much about bucking the system as about environmentalism. The funeral industry charges too much for its services and products, he believes.

“This is not my livelihood,” he says — he still has a day job, in fact.

This week, Bishop is opening a funeral merchandise store in Lexington that’ll offer affordable caskets and other funeral products — the first of its kind in the state.

“It gives a family the ability to come and shop without the funeral atmosphere or pressure,” Bishop says.

And in the end, that’s also part of what the green burial movement is about: making conscious choices about what we want for our dead.

 
* Michael Bishop left this comment on the "Free Times" website page in response to this article:  "Excellent article Eva! I'm sure I probably misspoke but I'm not actually the owner of the store. Sallie and Ron Clamp are the legal owners. I'm just one of the forces behind getting this started. The address is 120 North Church St in Lexington. Please go visit Sallie and see what the store has to offer or call her at 803-785-3075. Another local family trying to help yours!"

From Part III: Burial Series - We Have Choices for Dignified, Meaningful, and Affordable Funerals, Columbia Star, Friday, March 15, 2013, by Warren M. Hughes

The soil ... is good to be born on, good to live on, good to die for and to be buried in, wrote 19th century poet James Russell Lowell, who suffered the tragic deaths of his wife and young children.

In his time, people were closer to the land and nature and death were a more familiar and frequent part of life.  Lowell wrote movingly and eloquently of both, and that's why he very likely would welcome today's back-to-nature movement called "green burials," a tradition that has its roots in antiquity.

"Until the middle of the 19th century, green burial was the traditional way in which Americans buried their dead," says Dr. Gere B. Fulton, president of the board of the Funeral Consumers Alliance of South Carolina.

"Green burial has several meaning, but typically it means burial without embalming, expensive casekting, burial vaults, and monuments," he said.  "With the move toward urbanization, this method of burial became uncommon in this country, although it continued to exist in other parts of the world, including Western Europe."

In many cases, those who choose a green funeral may elect to be buried in an all-natural bio-degradable green burial shroud of sometimes a plain coffin made of cardboard or other easily biodegradable material.  Burial in "eco-cemetery" may include a tree planted over the grave as a remembrance.

The green funeral movement also draws on some long-standing religious customs on how a funeral service may be conducted.  Among these traditions are the handling of the body, the type of burial garment or shroud, the presence or lack of a coffin and the timing of the funeral.

Today's green burial movement can be traced to Ramsey Creek Preserve, the country's first conservation burial ground that opened in 1998 in Westminster in rural Upstate South Carolina, Fulton said.

Since the founding of Ramsey Creek, the movement has spread across the country, and in the past few years two other green burial grounds have opened in the South Carolina Midlands:  Greenhaven Preserve in Eastover and Dust to Dust in nearby Swansea.  The Green Burial Council, which provides standards and certification for funeral services, reports there are now 36 green cemeteries nationally supported by some 300 providers of green burial options.

Green burial is not only an alternative to cremation or traditional cemeteries, but it is more environmentally friendly and helps conserve land in its natural state, Fulton said. “Clearly we see problems at older ‘traditional’ cemeteries. Many have few or no trees; in others, the grounds have been destroyed through the use of herbicides. Drainage problems can occur and herbicide use leads to water pollution,” he said.

Dust to Dust is zoned as both a cemetery and a nature reserve. Owner Michael Bishop says he thinks of his preserve as offering more of a “natural” burial than a green burial per se. “I think of ours as a common sense burial.  It’s what people used do long ago, and we allowed funeral homes to almost dictate our options," he said. “The majority of families are unaware of their legal rights and options. For instance, the vast majority of our burials at Dust to Dust are performed without a licensed funeral director.  Families are more than able to perform these duties if they have just a little help and direction. We take pride in supporting families in their decisions. You don’t have to spend $15,000 to give your family member a proper burial. We even have families who transport their own deceased to the cemetery. It’s really quite simple and much more personal than hiring a funeral home,” he added.

“We charge $800 for the plot which includes all opening and closing costs. We also put up a tent and chairs if desired by the family at no additional charge. So you can see that you can actually bury someone for as little as $812,” he explained. “That would involve the family transporting and the additional $12 would be for the death certificate.”

He also plans to open a licensed funeral merchandise store this spring. “ The store will support families in purchasing products ranging from urns, caskets, tents, chairs, greeting books, podiums… you name it,” he said.

“Most statistics I’ve read claim that a casket is marked up on average more than 700 percent. That means that a $2,000 casket actually only costs around $300,” he said.

“The store will be offering these products at a much more reasonable price, and before you ask, funeral homes will have to accept these caskets and cannot charge a handling fee as protected by the Federal Trade Commission,” he said.

“ This is just one more step Dust to Dust is taking to help families take more control in their decisions and have a support group behind them.”

In describing his Greenhaven Preserve, owner Van Watts says the 364-acre preserve has 40 acres set aside for the burial cemetery. “Greenhaven is devoted to the long-term preservation and guardianship of the sacred land upon which it rests. Our mission is to restore and protect the surrounding fields and forests, waters and wildlife, views and vistas, while providing a simple, meaningful, and sustainable alternative to modern burial,” he said.

“When we learned about the resurgence of the centuries old practice of natural burial, we immediately recognized it as an opportunity to safeguard this precious landscape,” he said.

“As an environmentally friendly alternative, green burials are a commitment to conserving, sustaining, and protecting the earth to which our bodies ultimately return,” he said. “Burials at Greenhaven Preserve use less energy and create less waste than conventional burials,” he said. “Each burial also supports our mission of restoring and preserving this sacred landscape. And a green burial can often cost less than a modern burial as embalming fluids, concrete vaults and nonbiodegradable, caskets contribute to a large portion of its costs.

“Cherished memories live forever among the swaying pines and slow, wayward hills of Greenhaven Preserve,” he added. “ Virtually untouched by the ages, our ten acres of serenity are the perfect final resting place for individuals and families committed to a legacy of renewal and the enduring stewardship of nature’s greatest gifts.”

From Green Burial:  A Natural Option, The State Newspaper, Sunday, March 13, 2011, by Dawn Hinshaw

As Michael Bishop headed toward woods where he's creating a cemetery outside Swansea, he stopped in mid-sentence and stood still.  Up ahead were two pairs of preening wild turkeys, wandering the countryside.

"I'd much rather have that roaming over me than lawn mowers," said Bishop, who runs Dust to Dust, a "green" cemetery where embalming is not allowed and the people who use caskets have one choice - a handmade pine box put together with wood pegs.

Bishop, 39, is an advocate of simple, old-fashioned burial, a movement that is growing as more people seek a natural return to the earth at death.

An environmentalist in blue jeans and a T-shirt, Bishop does not arrange funerals but observes from a respectful distance, just in case he's needed, as families say their last goodbyes.

Since starting the cemetery in autumn 2009, Bishop has buried nine people and presold several additional plots, though he won't say how many.  Among the reserved plots are two for horses who'll be buried next to their devoted owners.

Natural burials seem to appeal equally to those who are biblically inspired and those unwilling to follow convention.

For some, money is a consideration as well.  Bishop sells 8-by-10 burial plots for $800.

Bishop does not require caskets; cotton shrouds are fine.  Headstones must be flat and made of a natural material, stone or wood.  His intent is to sow gravesites with seed and let nature take its course.

The idea of his nature preserve cemetery began to form when Bishop witnessed the aftermath of a car wreck killing a woman and two children.  He realized he should plan for his own death, but said he recoiled at the quote he got from a local funeral home.

He looked into establishing a family cemetery at his mother's place in Swansea, and the more research he did, the more conflicting information he found.  Once he worked it out, he said, he decided to give other people the option he sought for his own family.

His mother, Judy Bishop, a retired high school biology teacher, said the idea of a communal cemetery just evolved.  "It still seems like a very personal, family sort of thing," she said.

"I have just always felt a very strong connection with nature.  I've walked this land so much that, well - it's home."

Her son got two acres rezoned for the cemetery, adding deed restrictions to ensure the property would remain in a natural state, he said.

The he recruited a neighbor, Mike White, to build caskets and help families with transportation.  Just recently, White found a sawmill in Chapin where he could get rough-hewn pine, wood that's pretty and plentiful.

Bishop is an environmental investigator for Clemson Regulatory Services, "kind of like an ag cop."  In that job, he keeps an eye on the purchase of potential bomb-making materials, makes sure people who handle pesticides are licensed, visits organic farms to make sure they're truly organic and samples fertilizers to confirm ingredients.

Establishing a nature preserve is right up his alley.

He said he knows people in at least five counties, farmers with pretty land, ready to jump on the "green" cemetery bandwagon.  "In my mind, I could see hundreds of acres of land protected."

Natural burials seem to be catching on in South Carolina.

"It's sort of where we were with cremation 20 years ago," said Mike Squires, director of the S.C. Funeral Directors Association.  "This is another valid option for a family."

Representatives for four or five natural cemeteries have approached the S.C. Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation in the last couple of years, prompting the board to develop a two-page set of rules now before the Legislature, spokeswoman Lesia Kudelka said.  While natural cemeteries are not licensed, they may be required to set up endowments, for example, to pay for long-term maintenance of the cemetery and its trails.

The Bishops plan to landscape but haven't done much more than establish a row of burial plots at the edge of woods.  Families enter the property from a dirt road, then through a pasture planted in Bermuda grass.

They seem pleased with the setting.

"Everyone was just so amazed at how beautiful, how peaceful and how calm it is out there," said Sandy Piano of Lexington, who visited last week to plan sunflowers on her husband's grave.  John Piano died in November.

Sandy Piano said Bishop was casual and kind, allowing the men in her family, including a son with Down syndrome, to lower the casket into the grave.

David Hallman, who lives in Columbia, heard about Dust to Dust from his wife's hospice nurse.

"I knew there had to be a more natural way," he said.  "She gave me the literature."

While most people shy from end-of-life preparations, Hallman said it was "a privilege and an honor" to prepare Mary Hallman's body for her final rest.  They had been married 49 years.

He washed and clothes her in what she would have wanted to wear.

"Back to basics,"  Hallman said.  "The way it was, and the way it should be now." As the saying goes, you're guaranteed two things in life - death and taxes.  The death of a loved one is something many of us don't like to talk about, but the cost of burying that person - is enough to get the discussion going.  Funeral costs can be out of sight, but there are some more affordable yet dignified options for that final goodbye.



From Highway Fatality Brought New Options for Burial, Lexington County Chronicle, 2011, by Bill West

Michael Bishop remembers the day he saw a triple highway fatality incident, he started thinking.

He thought about his family and what they would face should something happen to him.  His thoughts then led to planning preparations for the final earthly event, his funeral.

He started gathering information that would be needed by his wife.  There was financial information:  bank accounts, deeds, will, insurance and even debts.  He wanted to leave no stone unturned.

To his amazement, he found that his wife could easily be left with an eight to ten thousand dollar funeral.  "That's not acceptable," he remembers saying.  So he started looking for alternatives.  That look resulted in the founding in 2009 of Dust to Dust in Swansea.

"This is a 'green cemetery' in a natural wooded environment," he said.  No embalmed bodies, no vaults and caskets - if used - must be biodegradable.

At Dust to Dust, an 8x10 plot costs $800 and the price includes opening and closing the grave site for the burial.  A casket is available for $300 and transportation of the body runs about $200.  The only thing left is a $12 Death Certificate Fee.  Should a flat stone marker be desired, they are available.

Green burials are every bit as respectful and professional as what you are going to find anywhere else, it's just not as wasteful and the environment is not harmed.

Many families are talking about end-of-life preparations and some even talk about how much closure they find in preparing - washing and dressing - the body for burial.  "It's a real first step in closure," said one husband whose wife had died after a long bout with cancer.

Survivors who have looked at Dust to Dust are amazed at how beautiful and peaceful and how calm it is out there.

Some folks say green burials main attraction is affordability because there are no embalming fees, no expensive caskets and no vaults.  "I want to just be allowed to return to the earth in a more natural way," said an octogenarian who was planning for how own "home-going" day.

"I had rather leave my family the extra five to ten thousand dollars rather than my being buried in a fancy casket protected with a vault and identified with a huge stone marker," the spry senior citizen said.

But, just as Bishop found out, there is more to preparations than finding a final resting spot.  There needs to be some order and organization to personal and family affairs.  These are matters that need to be discussed and plans organized in advance rather than under pressure of time.  "After death is not the time to make arrangements.  Now is the time," said Bishop.

Dust to Dust is double zoned as a cemetery and nature reserve leaving a quiet, non-polluting setting for eternal rest.  For more information call 803-568-5552.



From Death On A Dime: Cheaper Options For Burying Loved Ones, November 2010, by Brandi Cummings,
WIS News


When you think of a funeral, many people think about the casket, the church service and grave burial.  But there are many other choices, especially if you're looking to reduce costs.

It is an inevitable part of life.  "It's something we simply don't like to talk about," said Overton Ganong of the Funeral Consumers Alliance of South Carolina.

Dealing with death is hard.  Not planning for it makes it worse.  "It was such a whirlwind event, it was really kind of just numbing," said Tammy Chapman.

Cancer took Chapman's father Julian, and she was responsible for the funeral.  He owned a burial plot, but didn't have life insurance.  That left Tammy with few options.  "When he passed unexpectedly like that, we had literally just enough money to bury him," said Chapman.

Tammy's situation is all too familiar to the Funeral Consumers Alliance of South Carolina.  "We see a lot of times families getting into real disagreements at the time of the death when there has been no conversation around these issues,"  said Ganong.

Ganong says families should talk about what they want.  Tight budgets make that conversation crucial.  "Funerals are not inexpensive," said Greg Dunbar, who manages a funeral home in Columbia.

He says the average cost for a traditional funeral is $8,000.  That includes everything from embalming to flowers.

According to a price survey done by the FCASC, the average price of embalming in the Midlands is  $613.  But most steps of a traditional funeral are optional.  For instance, there's no need to embalm if there's no viewing or open casket.  Another traditional funeral option is caskets.  Prices range from $1,000 to $10,000.  "A casket is certainly a profit center for a funeral home," said Ganong.

You could always shop around.  We found caskets for sale online at Costco and Wal-mart.  Just have it shipped to the funeral home, and legally they can't turn it away.

The vault is another way to save.  One Midlands funeral home charges $30,000.  Ganong says it's cosmetic.  "Regardless of whether the body is embalmed, regardless of whether it's in a casket or in a vault, the body will eventually decay," said Ganong.

A traditional funeral is still the most common, but you do have options.  "It's a cleaner, faster way of doing in a few hours, what mother nature does in many years," said Ray Visotski, who owns the SC Cremation and Burial Society in Graniteville.

He says a simple cremation there costs $1,595, a fraction of the traditional route.  That includes everything from cremation to returning the ashes.

Ray says he did well in the recession, with people looking to not break the bank.  "It's not always the first choice, but sometimes they just don't have that choice," said Visotski.

But there is a less expensive and more earth friendly option.  "It's every bit as respectful and professional as what you're going to find anywhere else," said Michael Bishop.  "It's just not as wasteful."

Last year, Bishop started a green cemetery in Swansea.  He got the idea after seeing a bad car crash on the way home from work.  "That night I started thinking about it and making calls, then I realized just how expensive a cemetery plot was and I said, 'Well, I just want to be buried on my farm,' " he said.

He showed us the two acres of family land where right now, only three rest.  Michael doesn't hand funerals, only burial.  No embalming, no fancy headstones.  The total cost is $1,000.

"You're protecting land, you're just going back to earth naturally, which you're going to do at some point anyway, just much quicker my way," said Bishop.  "And you're not putting anything dangerous into the ground."

Michael's business is the second green burial site in the state.  The first in the country started in Westminster, South Carolina, but the idea is a "throwback."  "In the 19th century, the 18th century, people were usually buried in plain wooden boxes or in shrouds," said Ganong.

Time has brought change, and every year you can expect to see prices change too.  "The funeral homes are pretty much at liberty to set their prices as they see fit and to adjust them to what they consider their clientele would be willing to pay," said Ganong.

For Tammy Chapman, paying expensive funeral costs wasn't an option, so she chose to bury her dad here on Michael's farm.  "I know that the fact that he was buried in his wishes, that in and of itself is, I took care of what he desired," said Chapman.

Of all the people we spoke with for this story, all agree that it's important to get the conversation started when it comes to final expenses, burial options, and even life insurance.


From Free Times, October 2010, by Eva Moore

Green Burial: 
Most people don't find a funeral service by seeing it on a T-shirt.  They open a phone book or a helpful nurse or minister murmurs a name.

But T-shirts are how Michael Bishop's been advertising his business.

On the simple, bright blue T-shirts is a white-lettered explanation of what you get for $800 at Dust to Dust Green Burial Cemetery:  an 8-by-10-foot plot complete with opening and closing (i.e., gravedigging, body insertion and re-covering).  Caskets are optional.  No vaults or embalming are allowed.

The T-shirts work, Bishop says - but not usually right away.  When people first see them, they joke or make faces.

"Usually it's the immediate reaction - and then six months later they buy from me," Bishop says.  "Because they've had time to make an intelligent decision.  I laugh at the people who mock and then later buy from me."

Bishop's customers are among the increasing numbers of people rejecting the modern funeral industry and choosing to be buried naturally.   Some are in it for the cost, which is much lower than a burial and even than a cremation.  And some are in it because they want their death to help rather than hurt the environment:  no embalming chemicals leaching into the groundwater, no trees cut down on to be made into caskets and buried, no half-ton metal vaults under the earth; no energy-sucking cremations.

As a Christian, Bishop says green burial just makes sense to him.

"Your soul's gone; you're just the shell,"  Bishop says.  "And what's the best thing to do with that shell when you're gone?  If you can benefit something with your death - and I believe you do, you benefit nature by doing it - if your body can do one more good thing in death, well, why not do it?"

Bishop has taken the day off from his regular job today.  He wears a flannel shirt, jeans, a grubby baseball cap.  His Swansea country-boy accent seem to highlight his sincerity.

"Even if you're embalmed and all, it's still not a pleasant decomposition," he says.  "You are going to decompose.  It's just a lot quicker and more natural my way."

He's not on a crusade, he says.  Sure, he's gotten a little frustrated with the local coroners dragging their feet.  He wishes he didn't have to struggle with local agencies and hospitals to get them to simply obey state law.  But he thinks he's in it for the right reasons.

"I'm not anti-funeral home," Bishop says.  "I'm not anti-embalming.  I just think everybody should have their choice."

Sand and Dust:
Michael White tosses a jawbone fragment back to the ground.

"Nothing lasts long around here," he says.  "Everything gets eaten by something."

The little fox skeleton, compact and clean, lies amid native plants and trees - holly bushes, oaks, sourwoods, cottonwoods - in a half-sunlit glade.

Wasps buzz past.  Deer crash through the bushes.  A gray fox - this one alive - slinks through the grasses near her den.  Everything around is alive, humming.

The southeastern Lexington County town of Swansea is about a 35-minute drive from downtown Columbia.  The soil here is sandy, with none of the red clays and igneous intrusions of the edge of the Piedmont around Columbia.  These are the sandhills of the bottom half of South Carolina, with rolling hills and scrubby oaks and sand everywhere.

Here, outside Swansea, two acres of Bishop family land are zoned for the cemetery, with room to grow.  Next to the cemetery, Bishop's mom, Judy Bishop, has a trim white house, with goats and horses and farm equipment parked under the trees.  Near the property are more than 400 acres of protected swampland owned by Boozer Lumber.

A retired Marine originally from West Texas, White now shoes horses, among other jobs, and helps Bishop out with the cemetery.

When he was a Marine, White says, he had to open a few caskets of people dead for several years.  Casketed bodies break down too, he says, no matter how airtight and protective the casket and vault are supposed to be.  But those bodies are nothing like the sun-bleached, scavenger-cleaned fox skeleton at his feet.

"Inside it's soup. Just soup," he says.

While Bishop is the founder and owner of Dust to Dust, White provides critical support to the business through his own company, White's Green Services.

For one thing, he hauls the bodies using his red van.  Funeral transport is an industry all its own, often separate from the services of the funeral home and cemetery.  White will haul a body for $200.

White also builds plain caskets:  wooden rectangles, all pine, even down to the wood pins, so they biodegrade quickly and easily.  The next closest pin casket dealer is in Georgia, he says, so he started building caskets for Dust to Dust in his home wood shop.  He sells them for $300 each.

Where Bishop is reverent and a little careful, White is blunt.  Call White's cell phone and you'll hear a recording of horses neighing and snorting.  You used to hear a recording of Achmed the Dead Terrorist, the Jeff Dunham character who shrieks, "Silence!  I kill you!" but he changed it after he got into the funeral business and Bishop worried he was scaring off customers.

Their differences run deeper.  While Bishop is a home-schooling Christian and youth group worker, White drives a truck plastered with local roller derby bumper stickers - his wife and daughter are fans - and a Darwin fish.

But the men share a love for the land here - hunting, taking care of horses, listening carefully to every snap and rustle in the underbrush.  They also share a deep determination.  Having heard the word "no" from local officials one too many times, they keep pushing back.  And what they're up against is serious business.

Standard Grade: 
According to Mark Harris, author of the 2007 book Grave Matters, the average funeral runs about $10,000.  People arranging a funeral have to pay for everything from a casket and vault to the services of the cemetery and funeral home, transport vehicles and embalming, not to mention filing the necessary paperwork.

Of course, it's possible to spend either much more or somewhat less.  The most recent local numbers from the Funeral Consumers Alliance of South Carolina, which gathers price surveys from South Carolina funeral homes, show that caskets at Midlands funeral homes can run as low as $400 and as high as $50,000, with an average low price of $835.  Vaults - required by most conventional cemeteries so the ground doesn't cave in when people walk around the open grave - range from $225 up to $30,000.  Then there's the basic services fee, a non-negotiable flat rate that covers the funeral director's services, paperwork and the like.  At Midlands funeral homes, the fee ranges from $500 up to $3,075.

Cemetery and burial plot fees are entirely separate:  You buy a plot, then pay for the opening and closing.  Grave markers are also separate.

A cremation - usually thought of as a lower impact, less expensive option - isn't cheap either.  One of the cheaper options in the state is through the Palmetto Cremation Society.  Its basic plan runs $1,450, a price that doesn't include the society's $50 registration fee, per-mile transportation fees, or the urn for the ashes - called "cremains" in the industry.

Through a funeral home, the average cremation price in the state appears to be about $3,000, though again it can be difficult to tell.  The Federal Trade Commission requires the funeral industry to disclose its prices and let customers pick only the services they want; however, abuse of the rules is rampant.  Two years ago, the state Board of Funeral Service found that 85 percent of its members were not in compliance with the FTC regulations, according to Gere Burke Fulton, a USC professor and funeral consumer advocate.

Embalming is usually a separate line item, too, costing from $375 to $1,195.  Bodies that will be viewed or held for a few days before burial are usually embalmed, a process where the circulatory system and internal organs are drained of fluids and gases and re-filled with embalming fluid.

But funeral industry watchdogs say funeral homes push embalming even though it's not required by law.  In fact, the national Funeral Consumers Alliance cites U.S. and Canadian health authorities, including the CDC, who hold that embalming has no public health benefit - it doesn't prevent disease spread.  Moreover, when a body is buried soon after death or refrigerated, there's no need to preserve the body.  What's more, formaldehyde, one of the components of embalming fluid, is a carcinogen.  That's one big worry for environmentalists, who don't want it in the groundwater.  Embalming fluid also contains dyes to make bodies appear more lifelike, as well as other chemicals.

Besides the chemicals, there's the enormous quantity of metals, concrete and wood involved in burial.  A vault - the box the casket or coffin is buried in - can weigh thousands of pounds, all steel and concrete.  Caskets are often made of nice woods - cherry, mahogany - only to be buried.

Cremation isn't necessarily green, either.  It takes a lot of energy to burn up a body:  temperatures over 1,000 degrees F for one to two hours.  A 2005 article in The Guardian estimated that a cremation uses the same amount of energy as one person uses in a month.

So it's not a surprise that some people are turning to green burial.

Fulton says the interest in simple, earth-friendly burial is part of a larger interest in getting away from the funeral industry altogether.

"It's a much more personal way of connecting with out dead," Fulton says.  "We've gotten into the habit over the last 50 to 75 years of letting our fingers do the walking, picking a funeral home out of the phone book.  The next time the family sees the body, the body is fully dressed, laid out and looking like they're sleeping."

He compares the "home funeral" movement to the growth of home-schooling and home births.  And he predicts big changes for the industry as a whole.  Ironically, those changes would take us back to the way we used to bury and mourn our dead, and the way billions outside of this country still do.

"Over time, we got a little squeamish and didn't want to talk about death," Fulton says.  "And the funeral industry seemed like they could have a good thing going.  But I think we're more comfortable talking about death now.  I just think we've come along way."

Richland County Coroner Gary Watts says there's no law preventing someone from burying a body on their own property, provided they do the right paperwork.

"Neighborhoods usually have covenants against that sort of thing, but there's no sort of law against people burying their loved ones out on a farm," Watts says.

But Bishop's day job is in regulatory work for Clemson.  He's the kind of guy who likes to check all the laws and make sure everything is covered.  So he studied zoning, licensing and all the other possible angles.

The more he learned about the funeral industry, he says, the more he wanted to offer other options to people besides himself.

So he decided to have a few acres of family land double-zoned as both a cemetery and a nature reserve.  He also put an additional deed restriction on the land so it can never be anything other than a green cemetery, no matter who might someday own it.

"It can't be timbered; it can't be farmed," Bishop says.

He went before the state LLR board.  He hired a biologist to create an environmental master plan for the land.  He bought a $20,000 trackhoe to dig graves; it has special rubber treads that are gentle on the ground.  He build a wooden sleeve of sorts, which he puts in the grave once he's dug it out to hold the earth around the sides from caving in; it serves the same purpose as a vault, only temporarily.  And he bought a $3,000 lowering device to put the wooden caskets or bodies in the ground.

The cemetery is plotted out using GPS.  It's really just an area of woods near a hay pasture - nothing formally walled-in or landscaped.  The first graves are at the farthest point from the access road so that once they're filled, the trackhoe won't have to drive over those areas ever again.

At Dust to Dust, bodies are buried in biodegradable wooden caskets, biodegradable body bags, or simply wrapped in a shroud made from natural fibers.  Bishop buries bodies about four feet deep, mounding the earth up on top to account for settling as the body decomposes.  Some green cemeteries bury bodies even shallower - the closer to the surface, the more microbes there are to quickly decompose the body - but Bishop doesn't want animals to get interested in the bodies.

"Especially if you're just burying a body (with no casket), you don't want a dog or something to come through and try to dig it up," Bishop says.

In the year since he started the business, Bishop has only buried three people.  However, he's been steadily selling plots, he says, at the rate of about one a week. 

Dealing with bodies hasn't bothered him yet, he says.

"I guess to me it's just part of life.  Once you're dead, you're dead.  We've grown up hunting and all, forever.  It hasn't bothered me yet."

But he understand the grip the conventional funeral industry has on the culture.

"I think it's the inability to think on your own, is my opinion," Bishop says.

"I think if you sit down with no previous background or experience and you give choices, you would pick me.  But you've grown up in a culture of spending $15,000 and five show cars and these things, and that's what you're supposed to do.  It just doesn't make sense to me."

Who's Choosing Green Burial?
Dust to Dust is the first green cemetery in the Midlands, but not in the state.  In fact, the first green cemetery in the entire country is in South Carolina.  The 33-acre Ramsey Creek Preserve opened in 1998, quickly becoming a model for green cemeteries nationwide.  Ramsey Creek is a bit more fancy than Dust to Dust, and costs a bit more:  $2,500 to $3,500, depending on the grave site you choose, plus up to $500 in opening and closing costs.

Given all the environmental reasons to avoid traditional burial or cremation, it's a little surprising who Dust to Dust's customers actually are.  They're not, for the most part, a bunch of hippies.

"We thought that was going to be it - the nature people.  It's not,"  White says.

The cemetery is selling advance plots mostly to wealthy people, often those with an environmental conscience, he says.  They're selling advance plots to people who want their pets buried near them - most traditional cemeteries won't allow pet burial, but Bishop isn't even charging extra for pets at this point.  (Bishop will be requiring the guy who wants his horse buried next to him to buy a separate plot for the horse, though.)

But given his low prices, especially in a recession, the people he's actually burying are those who don't have the money for a traditional funeral.

Bishop's latest burial was a man who died in late September at the Veterans Administration hospital after a brief illness.  The man's daughter (who asked that we not use her name) was not close to her father, and he left no money for a funeral or burial.  So she called Bishop.

"Had it not been for Michael, my father would still be sitting in the morgue at the VA," she says.

"I wouldn't say I'm necessarily a green person, but I don't believe in wasting," she says.  "And I think funerals have turned into kind of a racket."

The process wasn't easy, though.

Hospitals and morgues are used to releasing bodies to the care of a funeral director.  Bishop is not a funeral director; he simply runs the cemetery.  So for burials at Dust to Dust, the family of the deceased has to act as the funeral director.

This is completely legal under South Carolina state law, according to Fulton.  But hospitals aren't accustomed to it, and it can mean some paperwork hassles for the family.

To transport a body, one has to get a BRT (Burial-Removal-Transit) permit from the county coroner, in the name of the funeral director.  The family also has to file its own death certificate with the Department of Health and Environmental Control within five days of the death.

It was the first time the VA and Richland County had dealt with a case quite like it, the woman says.

"It took us 3 or 4 days constantly of working on this process to get it through Richland County," the woman says.

Bishop says it's been like this each time he's done a burial.

"It's just hard on a family,"  Bishop says.  They want to move on.  Every time you try something new, or a new county, you've got problems.  There's a lot of educating."

A Pauper's Grave?
When a family can't afford to bury a body, they can sign the body over to the county to dispose of.  When nobody claims a body, it also becomes the property of the county.  Each county in the state contracts with a cremation service to dispose of these bodies.  The price is a line item in the coroners' budgets.

Bishop want to get in on some of these contracts - not as a substitute for cremation, but as a second option.  He wants the counties to offer either cremation or green burial to indigent families.  He'll match the crematoriums' price, he says.

But in trying to expand his business into indigent burial, he's urn up against industry entrenchment and a lot of roadblocks.

He's had trouble getting a response.  Coroners in several neighboring counties have flat-out failed to respond to repeated emails.  And after some back and forth, Lexington County is not interested.

Lexington County Chief Deputy Coroner Randy Martin is careful to say he's got no problem with what Dust to Dust is doing.

"I can't see where any of us have any concerns about using this service," Martin says.  "I can see where it would be a good service for people."

But once a family signs over a body to the county, Martin says, it's not about choice.  The county just needs to dispose of the body in the cheapest honorable way.

Martin stresses that Lexington County treats its cremated indigent bodies well.

"[Lexington County Coroner Harry] Harman actually puts them into a burial spot and gives them a nice stone," giving somewhere for the families to visit, Martin says.

Bishop hopes to bid on the contract anyway when it comes up - not as a second option, but by underbidding the cremation contract.  The county has the option to extend the current contract, though, so it could be a few years.

Fulton says he struggled against similar forces when trying to get Lexington County to release bodies directly to families.

"Their position was the Lexington County would not release a body to a family under any circumstances,"  Fulton says.  "I explained that was against the law."

After getting the county attorney involved, Fulton finally saw some things begin to change at the Lexington County coroner's office.  But he suggests there's a reason for all the resistance:  Coroner Harry Harman is part of the family that runs the Caughman-Harman Funeral Home

"I think there's a very clear conflict of interest," Fulton says.

And he says it's not uncommon:  plenty of coroners in the state work for funeral homes.  Even when there's no family connection, Fulton says, it's still in coroners' and other elected officials' best interests to go along with what the funeral homes want.

"Many of the funeral homes are very well connected politically," he says.  "They give contributions just like any other corporation."

But Harman says that if there were a problem with him working in the funeral industry, voters would have said so.

"I don't think anybody in Lexington County would tell you it's been that way," he says.  "That's come up every time.  I've won by a wide margin every time.  I've been serving since 1976."

Harman says he doesn't know enough about green burial to comment on Bishop's cemetery or desire to bid.

Only in Richland County has Dust to Dust made some progress on bidding on the indigent contract - but it's very slow progress.

"It doesn't matter to me whether they're cremated or buried," says Richalnd County Coroner Gary Watts.  "And obviously we certainly are willing to work with him."

But before Bishop can bid on a contract, Watts says, the county staff needs to figure out whether bodies can legally leave Richland County to be buried in Lexington County.

"When someone is turned over to the county, they become county property,"  Watts says.  "We're currently looking at a few laws."

In the case of unidentified bodies or remains, state law requires burial in a cemetery in the county in which the remains were found.  No section of the law appears to require the same treatment for indigent bodies, though.

If they can't figure it out themselves, Watts says, they'll ask the state attorney general.  "We're wanting to make sure that everything is A-OK to do that.  And once we get to that point, he can submit a bid."

So far, Bishop and the Richland County Coroner's office have been going back and forth for three months.

The Ending
All the red tape frustrates Bishop.

"The thing that bothers me the most is I'm trying so hard to make it flawless for the family, and it just hasn't gotten to that point yet.  That's what I hate.  I hate telling someone, 'You go down there and tell them you're acting as the funeral director, and you'll get the BRT, and you'll be responsible for the death certificate,' and then they run into problem after problem after problem."

But ironically, these troubles might be the very thorn that makes Bishop keep moving forward with Dust to Dust.  After all, it could have just been Bishop and his family buried out there on their land.

After all this time spent talking about and working with death, Bishop has simple plans in his own will:

"Bury me immediately and have a cookout that Saturday.  That's the honest truth.  My people, the people I'd want to be around, gather and have stories about me and spend the night having a cookout on the farm, and move on."

"You want them to miss you a little bit, but you want people to move on," he says.  "I don't want my kids moping for two years that I died.  I hope they're sad, but I want them to go on."











A beautiful evening sky
over-looking the cemetery.



...a peaceful place...


...beautiful and serene ....


A late fall day as the sun comes up
near the cemetery.



Looking out across the pasture
on a gorgeous day at the farm.
The cemetery sits on the back of the pasture.



God's awesome handiwork.


Standing at the cemetery,
overlooking the hay pasture,
a platform waits for a casket to be placed on it
for a graveside service.



A recent burial, where the earth has been returned to the top of the grave for settling.


A natural mound is placed on the grave.


Late fall brings leaves that scatter the cemetery.


Part of the cemetery is more in the meadow area, while the other portion is in the wooded area.


An example of a grave marker at Dust To Dust.


As you can see, the grave markers vary.


Grave markers need to be flush with the ground and made of natural stone.


Mrs. Hallman's family set up a bench
near her burial plot.



The farm is home to many animals.
Here, Gypsy and Angel are being playful!



The horses graze on the farmland
near the cemetery.



"Lil' Dude" looks for fruit from the orchard.


Our wildlife camera surprises a few deer
who are wandering around the land.



Even wild turkey find our place to be a refuge!


Say "cheese!"


This is my wife's plot.  We went ahead and marked it off, so we could bury her precious 15 year old dog in the corner of her plot this past summer.
If you have a plot at Dust To Dust, your dog or cat can be buried here, free of charge.



On June 8, 2011, we buried our dog,
Gretel Anne Bishop. She was 15.



She is laid to rest on land she loved to explore!


A place to sit, reflect and remember our loved ones.
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