The Wilderness Cemetery: A New Way to Fund Land Conservation

| by Conservation Maven

Imagine a simple burial in a handcrafted pine box surrounded by family and friends on a nature preserve bursting with blooming native wildflowers. Sound idyllic? That’s what the folks at The Wilderness Center in Ohio are betting on.

Two years ago, they opened Foxfield Preserve, one of the nation’s first nature preserve cemeteries for green burials as an ecopreneurial venture to increase the center’s income in support of its conservation mission. Gordon Maupin, executive director of The Wilderness Center, says “green” or “natural” burials are 100 percent ecologically safe, non-controversial, and a natural way to give back to the planet.

They are also an innovative way to generate income for ongoing care of conservation land in a time when the funds to do so are thin.  However Maupin  cautions there is a considerable planning process, as with any other start-up venture.

Natural burials were the tradition worldwide up until about the Civil War, when more “modern” methods of burials—embalming chemicals, steel caskets and concrete vaults—became the norm.  
In a natural burial, a person is:

      •Laid to rest, dressed in natural fibers such as cotton or wool
      •Placed in a biodegradable container (not made of endangered tropical wood)
      •Not embalmed
      •Not placed in a vault

In addition, the burials are very low density so that nature will dominate landscape. In the Foxfield Preserve cemetery, they anticipate hosting no more than 200 burials per acre. (About 10 of the preserve’s 42 acres are useable.) This is in contrast to a modern cemetery where one would find more than 1,000 burials per acre.

The majority of modern burials put steel caskets and concrete vaults into the earth. According to some estimates, the U.S. annually buries more than 100,000 tons of steel, 1.6 million tons of concrete and 800,000 gallons of embalming fluids, which often contain formaldehyde and other chemicals, some of which may trickle into watersheds.

Memorial Ecosystems, Inc., started the first nature preserve cemetery in 1998 at Ramsey Creek in South Carolina. Today, there are 15 other natural cemeteries in the US, but the Foxwood Preserve is the first operated by a conservation organization.

When initially exploring the idea, Maupin enlisted the help of graduate students enrolled in a social entrepreneurship program to figure out the feasibility. They consulted with Memorial Ecosystems, Inc., board members, and retired morticians.

The Wilderness Center already owned the preserve’s 42-acres, and the conservation cemetery idea seemed like a good one.  It would give back to the community by sustaining wildlife habitat, a clean watershed, clean air, and walking trails.  But it would also require planning and steep, start-up costs.

“You must approach this like you are starting a business,” Maupin says, “because you are.” Initial steps included:

•Thorough land survey and plot map.
•$200,000 to build a paved driving loop that is wide and deep enough to support vehicles, as well as reinforced turf wings for parking.
•Create an entry and install signage
•Develop marketing materials
•Navigate through IRS laws
•Create a sturdy legal structure
•Follow state laws, including Ohio’s requirement for $50,000 trust account

Since opening up in August 2008, they have sold 60 plots and had about a dozen burials. The plots are $3,200 pre-need and $4,000 at need. A portion of the cost can be a tax-deductible donation. While this cost is more than most traditional cemetery prices, the savings on vault, casket and other items make natural burial much more economical.

Maupin anticipates recovering startup costs within a few years. With just two years under their belt, they have net $40,000. Maupin says the most expensive ongoing cost is supporting two full-time employees and benefits. But the long-term gain will be worth it.

When a plot is purchased, part of the fee is a legacy donation (about $1,600) to The Wilderness Center, which helps to support its conservation education programs. The burials also develop a strong emotional connection between the families and the land.  

“We allow families to close the grave,” Maupin said, “which most cemeteries do not. It is a very powerful experience for the families.”

Maupin said the Wilderness Center anticipates building a stronger connection to the community through its nature preserve cemetery, which will cause more individuals to be stakeholders in the success of the conservation organization.

“As a nonprofit, the more you can connect to a community, the better off you are,” he said. “There are quite a few things you can do as a conservation organization that earn income to advance your mission, and if you can come up with these ideas, then, why not?” 

--by Kate Yeomans