By contrast, modern cemeteries seem toxic. Based on statistics compiled from the Casket and Funeral Supply Association of America, the Cremation Association of North America, and the Rainforest Action Network, environmental writer Mary Woodsen estimates 827,060 gallons of embalming fluid-enough to fill nearly four Olympic-sized swimming pools-are entombed each year in America's 22,500 cemeteries. Along with approximately 2.3 million bodies, we bury 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete that go into vaults, as well as 104,272 tons of steel and 2,700 tons of copper and bronze in the form of caskets. Then there are the 30 million board feet of precious hardwoods that are buried annually.

All of this comes at a cost. A no-frills burial in a modern cemetery generally runs more than $6,000. "Funerals are a $26 billion-a-year industry," Campbell says. "There are better things we can do with that money." A green burial at Ramsey Creek costs around $2,500, still a somewhat hefty price tag.

The idea of preserving land, however, is what drew Bonnie Raney, who buried her husband at Ramsey Creek and bought herself a plot there as well. In her eighty-one years, she's seen the land around her overrun by buildings and parking lots. "It might seem like a drop in the bucket, but every little bit you can take from real estate developers is worth it to me," she says in a deep Southern drawl.

Babs McDonald and her husband Ken Cordell, both research scientists with the Forest Service in Athens, Georgia, also felt that buying plots at Ramsey Creek presented an opportunity to stem the fragmentation and development of land-and for McDonald, the opportunity to return something to the Earth. "I feel like the Earth has given so much to me and the proper thing is for me to give back, in my life and through my life, but also in death," she says. "I want to provide that meal for all the little critters." Eventually, she hopes, her remains will become a part of other living things.

For Brown, who recently buried her son at Ramsey Creek, the ceremony and restoration ritual in the woods provided relief and comfort and changed her family's view of what they want after death. "I'd hate to think of being buried in a commercial way when I saw the warmth of this ceremony," she says. At Chris' request, his friends and family showed up in tie-dyed T-shirts and sang Jerry Garcia songs. They wrote messages and signed their names with Sharpie pens on his casket, which his father had built. Chris' dog added paw prints. And everyone stayed to participate in the covering service. "We turned our despair into a happy time," Brown recalls. "Chris said dying was a part of life and he hoped everyone who attended that service would take that with them when they left."