Greening Up the Afterlife

Mills River property is North Carolina’s first Conservation Burial Ground

LOVE AND LIGHT
Carolina Memorial Sanctuary Manager Cassie Barrett oversees the scenic Mills River property where death is handled more naturally.
Photo by Karin Strickland

Some may say Cassie Barrett is obsessed with death. But she would say quite the opposite is true — she’s fascinated by what mortality can teach us about living. 

“When I go to a cemetery, it puts everything in perspective,” says Barrett. “It’s so easy to get pulled into the drama of our lives and for little things to feel so big. When we recognize that we’re mortal and that time is finite, we appreciate the life we have.”

Barrett manages cemetery operations at Carolina Memorial Sanctuary, an 11-acre graveyard off of Old Fanning Bridge Road in Mills River. Like all cemeteries, this is a place where families lay the deceased to rest. Spouses have mourned the departure of their life companions here, and grandchildren have said goodbye to grandparents.

Photo by Karin Strickland

But unlike other cemeteries, the sanctuary rejects conventional methods for body disposal. Instead, it offers a long roster of eco-friendly alternatives, priced variously to accommodate deceased people and pets and including the digging and closing of graves in a choice of habitats or the handling of cremated remains. (A percentage of burial costs go to upkeep of the sanctuary.)

Green burial, says Barrett, is a method that eschews the use of toxic chemicals and materials. The practice is gaining ground as research unveils the carbon footprint of our deceased. The sanctuary’s website, for instance, notes that conventional burial practices use 20 million board feet of hardwood trees, 1.6 million tons of concrete, and 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid — which contains carcinogenic chemicals — each year. (Statistics originated from the national Green Burial Council.)

More digging reveals an even grimmer reality: A passage from Fortune.com, also quoted on the website, reports that annual cremations in America generate carbon emissions equivalent to the energy used by 42,532 homes in a year. 

The sanctuary advocates for a greener afterlife. No embalming fluids are used; caskets, shrouds, and urns must be biodegradable; commemorative markers should lie flat and be sourced locally; and graves are dug by hand to only three feet deep — as opposed to the traditional six — so that plants can absorb nutrients as bodies decompose. But don’t worry, Barrett assures, there’s no odor: “North Carolina law says you must have a minimum of 18 inches of earth above the body,” she says. “This creates what’s known as a ‘smell barrier.’” 

The property in Mills River is the first cemetery in North Carolina designated as a “Conservation Burial Ground,” the highest certification bestowed by the Green Burial Council according to a long, detailed list of requirements. (Green Burial Grounds and Hybrid Cemeteries — one of the latter exists in Asheville’s Leicester community — meet some but not all of the list’s criteria. A second Conservation Burial Ground, Bluestem, will open in Durham later this year.)

The meadowy parcel invites lingering and reflection.
Photo by Karin Strickland

As the cemetery’s key contact, Barrett spends her days providing guided tours, educating others on the merits of green burial, and managing daily operations. She’s also the primary staff member who facilitates burials, even helping families lower their loved ones into the ground. “We encourage people to be hands-on during the burial process, which for many friends and family is a final act of love, provid[ing] a healing opportunity that isn’t always available during a conventional funeral,” says Barrett, who has attended almost all of the sanctuary’s 180 burials, including burials of pets.   

Needless to say, Barrett feels at ease around death — but not because she’s jaded by it. In 2010, she started volunteering for a hospice provider and taking classes at the Center for End of Life Transitions, a local organization that offers workshops centered around death. That’s when Barrett realized dying doesn’t have to be ominous — it can be beautiful. 

“All of us walk around terrified of mortality,” says Barrett. “It’s natural to be afraid … but we also have to change the culture around death and reclaim it as a natural part of life, so that we can be better prepared and live life more fully.”

In 2016, Barrett left her job at a digital-marketing firm in Asheville to help Caroline Yongue, founder of the Center for End of Life Transitions and Carolina Memorial Sanctuary. As a lay Buddhist minister and death doula, Yongue had tried to start a Conservation Burial Ground in 2007, but her efforts were thwarted by the recession. In 2014, another opportunity presented itself. The Unity Center of the Blue Ridge was interested in parceling off land to someone who might found an eco-conscious burial ground. Yongue instantly sold her West Asheville home and donated the money to her Buddhist group, which purchased the plot. 

But the land needed work. A former dairy farm, it had since been consumed by invasives. McDowell Creek, a waterway dissecting the property, had also eroded into a scab of red clay. Hoping to restore natural habitat and protect the land for decades to come, the sanctuary donated a permanent conservation easement to Conserving Carolina in 2018. Conserving Carolina, a Hendersonville-based land trust, then raised the funds for an ambitious restoration project that involved “transforming the land from an overgrown tangle of invasive plants to a beautiful home for living things,” says Kieran Roe, the organization’s executive director.

The meadowy parcel, which is public and includes walking trails, is now teeming with life. Warblers chirp, deer have been seen grazing under shocks of white pine, and salamanders are known to chill in the cool banks of McDowell Creek. The natural beauty of this place is one reason why Barrett chose to bury her stepmother and cat here.

“There’s something so psychologically prof found about walking around the sanctuary and seeing the juxtaposition of life and death,” says Barrett. “It’s a reminder that death is very natural and that our bodies will literally return to the earth.”

Carolina Memorial Sanctuary, 195 Blessed Way, Mills River. To learn more, visit carolinamemorialsanctuary.org.

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