David Neil McKay’s family knew they had found the perfect resting place for his ashes in the EcoEternity Forest at Chestnut Ridge, his wife Alberta McKay said.
“The tree reminded me of him, because it was tall and straight like he was,” she said.
EcoEternity Forest sells burial space for cremated remains among the roots of a one-acre forest at the Chestnut Ridge Camp and Retreat Center. The N.C. United Methodist Conference founded the 362-acre center in 1959 off Chestnut Ridge Church Road, west of Chapel Hill.
McKay, who lives in Raleigh, visits the site regularly and also volunteers in the center’s community garden. About 40 people attended her husband’s service at the outdoor chapel by the lake in 2010, she said. A bagpiper played “Amazing Grace” and other songs he liked.
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She enjoys taking in the scenery, visiting with the “empathetic and kind” staff and listening to the young campers play. She also likes knowing a portion of the cost of her family’s tree supports the camp, instead of cemetery maintenance, she said.
“I always thought it was a very spiritual place,” McKay said. “My husband and I were always interested in the environment and in doing things the natural way.”
Chestnut Ridge partnered with Virginia-based EcoEternity Forest LLC in 2009 to open the EcoEternity Forest. EcoEternity Forest LLC operated seven centers in five states until the founders recently broke ties to focus on their core business in Germany. Each center will continue to operate independently, company officials said. Chestnut Ridge – the only North Carolina location – is open to people of all faiths and no faith at all.
Burial costs are based on the tree’s age, species and location. Leases are good for more than a hundred years, starting at $600 to $900 for one spot at a community tree. Reserving a whole tree – for up to 15 people – averages $4,500 to $9,000, Jeffries said.
Families are responsible for the cost of additional services, such as cremation, funeral home services and ministerial fees.
Each set of remains is buried in a biodegradable capsule and noted on the tree with a small, engraved plaque bearing the person’s name and birth and death dates. Available trees – dozens are left – are marked with green tape.
Chestnut Ridge director Nick Jeffries said a dozen people are buried in the forest; they’ve also leased six more family trees and 13 spots at community trees, he said. The forest is maintained twice a year by hand, and dead trees are replaced with the same species, if possible, he said.
Popular in Europe
Green burials have been popular for many years in Europe, where land is more scarce. Pine Forest Memorial Gardens in Wake Forest offers a third option: placing the body in a pine coffin, shroud or other biodegrable material, and lowering it into the grave by hand and rope.
The industry continues to evolve. Embalming, while not always necessary, is now available without formaldehyde, a longtime ingredient and known carcinogen. More service providers are using a new bio-process called alkaline hydrolysis, which uses heat, water, pressure and potassium hydroxide.
The Green Burial Council considers traditional cremation only slightly more eco-friendly than burial, because it uses fossil fuels and produces mercury from dental fillings, heavy metals, hydrogen chloride and other toxic chemicals.
The number of people being cremated has grown in the last 30 years, said Debe Czerwiec, of the Funeral Consumers Alliance of the Triangle. The N.C. Board of Funeral Service reported 32,000 cremations last year, compared to 28,000 in 2008. Nearly 50 percent of the U.S. population is expected to choose cremation by 2017, the National Funeral Directors Association said. That’s up from 35 percent in 2007, the group said.
In part, Czerwiec said, that reflects an interest in environmental stewardship. But it also represents a change in how people view funerals, evolving religious doctrines and how much people are willing to pay, she said.
In 2012, the average cost of an adult funeral was $7,045, and most cemeteries required the casket or urn to be placed inside a concrete vault, adding roughly $1,300. The does not include funeral or visitation services, flowers, obituaries, crematory fees or other services.
EcoEternity Forest offers affordable options and lets the center serve community members at all stages of life, Jeffries said. The forest is surrounded by acres of trails, horse-riding facilities, cabins and other recreational activities.
“People really have a lifetime relationship with this place, because they can come here at a very young age, they come back as adults. ... They send their kids here,” he said. “It also very much fits with our overall theme of creation, care and caring for the environment. A green burial alternative is just a great opportunity to help people.”