Westminster, South Carolina rests on the northwest edge of the state. The town was founded in the 1890’s as a water stop for the railroad and is also the home of the South Carolina Apple Festival. This sleepy little town of 2,422 folks was calling my name, but I wasn’t going for the apples. I travelled there from Nashville. My path winded down two lane roads alongside the beautiful Ocoee River and through three National Forests. I didn’t know what to expect when I turned left off SC State Highway 76 onto Cobb Bridge Road. It led me beyond farms and apple orchards to a natural stone entrance reading Ramsey Creek Preserve. As I drove in and parked I quickly noticed the sign reading “foot traffic only.” I was surrounded by colors of green in varying shades and the oxygen was thick and entered my lungs with a kiss. I was greeted by Dr. Billy Campbell and his wife Kimberley. Billy and Kimberley took a reprieve from their normal day operating Foothills Family Medicine to visit with me. I was elated that the town’s only doctor took a break and walked with me in the woods.
Our introduction began at a weathered dogtrot structure near the entrance where people can gather before a burial or just to meditate. The Campbells explained to me that many visitors come just for a hike, to dip their toes in the creek or to picnic in the meadow. We walked from the dogtrot’s porch along a grass covered trail into a meadow of native grasses and wildflowers. Among the liatris and rudbeckia, as the wind parted the native grasses, I noticed a natural stone from the grounds with a name engraved upon it. At Ramsey Creek each grave is dug by hand. A native stone from the site is engraved and used as a memorial, simply listing the person’s name and years of life. No embalming occurs and a biodegradable casket or shroud is used. Indigenous vegetation is planted over the fresh grave and mother nature reclaims its own. As the path continued we passed the pines and and deciduous hardwoods that stand stately as guards over the sacred earth. Cicada and katydid choirs serve as sentinels throughout the preserve echoing a calming hum. Kimberley and Billy share with everyone that a visit at Ramsey Creek is much more of a nature walk than a talk about death.
The path turns to gravel and we rounded a bend unveiling a chapel. It stands tall and white in simple form. Built in 1924 the structure was once a church and schoolhouse located less than a mile from its present location. As we entered the arched doorway of the building, knotty pine boards formed the walls and a large picture window looked out into the preserve.
Dr. Campbell who prefers the less fussy title of “Billy” was kind enough to ring the iron schoolhouse bell and announce our presence. The old rescued building is now the perfect place to say goodbye or to say hello. It also serves as a space for baptisms, weddings, environmental lectures and gatherings of many kinds.
Stepping outside onto the steps of the chapel we meander towards the meadow’s tree line, beyond the veil of trees and under the canopy into the mouth of the woodland pathway. Dotted along the way are stones reading the names of those who chose to save this land with their burial. Native ferns, Solomon Seal and scattered mosses collaborate to serve as a pillow to those who reside there in eternal rest. Along the three ridges you will find something naturally different, perhaps a stone bench, or a native endangered plant found no other place in the world. The trails all connect and lead throughout the woods that are home to flying squirrels, songbirds, deer and a variety of fauna.
Nearing the crest of the ridge one can hear Ramsey creek far below as it dances around the waterway’s boulders and stones. The lower in the valley you descend, the cooler and calmer the air becomes until you arrive at the creek side. All along the way the benefactors are made known by their simple stones. The moisture of the creek encourages the growth of saprophytic orchids and a variety of plants endemic to the land.
Climbing the trails back towards the ridge offers an opportunity to observe the native plants and animal species. Your senses are heightened and a greater purpose and true connection to the earth is at hand. Ramsey Creek is unlike any place I have ever experienced. Little if any resemblance to an actual cemetery can be found on these grounds. I believe in my heart that conservation burial is the purest way to care for the dead.
We made our way back to the entrance of the preserve passing a metal and wire structure filled with varying rocks. In a conservation or truly natural burial ground no foreign plants or artificial flowers are allowed. Kimberley and Billy explained that the wire structure, made by a local artisan, serves as an interactive place for visitors to leave a stone to serve as a reminder that they were there to visit. At Ramsey Creek this practice mirrors bringing flowers to a contemporary cemetery.
As I left Ramsey Creek, swallowtail butterflies searched the meadows for sweet nectar and the breeze wafted across the grasses. Another day came to a gentle end and just as certain as the sun would rise tomorrow new life grew from the land. With each new burial more people will learn of the new options they have. The earth can actually heal one person at a time. After visiting Ramsey Creek Preserve I feel I have glimpsed the future and I am filled with gratitude. Thank you, Billy and Kimberley. Thank you, Ramsey Creek. And as one of the memorial stones read: “Thank You Nature, Evelyn.”