LaGrange GA Nature Reserve also has a natural cemetery

Jeannette Little is not worried about decomposition. She finds solace in returning to Earth quickly – from ash to ashes and dust to dust.

“My mind will be gone,” she said.

When the recently retired 66-year-old State Court Judge passes away, her body’s final resting place will be on her cousin’s land just north of downtown LaGrange, where she spent part of his childhood running through the forest and streams. There will be no embalming epitaphs or tombstones, vaults or grave coverings.

She hasn’t bought her land yet, but Little said she doubted Ralph W. Howard Jr., 78, would deny her a spot at Whispering Hills Memorial Nature Preserve (3550 Mooty Bridge Road, LaGrange).

The land covers 140 acres and extends to the arms of West Point Lake. It has trails for walking, hiking and biking. Four horses roam in fenced meadows.

But the central feature of the reserve is the 20 acres designated as a Green Cemetery of Perpetual Care – one of three in Georgia and the only one outside of metro Atlanta, Howard said.

The reserve opened on Thursday, marking the 51st anniversary of Earth Day, and Howard said he hopes the land that gave him peace as a child will do the same for others, even in death.

Where did the idea for Ralph’s Green Cemetery come from?

Howard’s parents purchased the main portion of the land which now includes the reserve in 1946.

At first there was no telephone. The paved roads ended less than half a mile from his childhood home, where a cart pulled by mules occasionally passed. Prosperity came to the land in the form of washing machines and tractors in the 1950s. He played in streams and in the woods.

And when cars passed, Howard and his best friend Jackie Hubbard would sometimes hide in a ditch and throw mudballs at unsuspecting drivers. A county soldier quickly put a stop to this, he said.

“It was wonderful,” Howard said. “I was a barefoot boy with tanned cheeks.”

After his parents died, Ralph and his sister, Jean Howard, tried to find ways to preserve the family lands as LaGrange expanded and housing estates began to appear.

Jean tried to run a horse farm ten years ago, but the economy was not doing well. He thought about selling lumber, but after researching the company, he decided it wasn’t worth it. He came across the idea of ​​green cemeteries by accident.

Ralph was trying to go downtown for breakfast during an ice storm a few winters ago. He slipped, breaking his hip in two places. While in rehab, he read an article in The Economist magazine about green burials, published in April 2018.

He began speaking with funeral directors and visiting other green cemeteries to confirm his idea, including the famous Billy and Kimberley Campbell of Ramsey Creek Preserve in Westminster, South Carolina, the first green cemetery in the United States. United.

Then came the planning and re-planning, zoning and legal documents, and the licenses required to make it all happen. It took three long years.

“No one knew what it was, but when I told them they were interested,” he said. “So many people have said this is what I always wanted. Just put me in a wooden box.

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A grave dug as an example of a green cemetery site at Whispering Hills Memorial Nature Preserve on April 19, 2021 in LaGrange, Georgia. This is an environmentally friendly death care practice and one of three in Georgia. Madeleine Cook [email protected]

What a green funeral looks like

Green burials resemble funerals of yesteryear with a modern focus on eco-conservation and minimizing environmental damage. The details of the process vary widely depending on a person’s desires.

Bodies are not prepared in Whispering Hills – this process is handled by funeral homes. One of the partners of Whispering Hills is Higgins Funeral Home at Hunter Allen Myhand, said Jeffrey Higgins Jr., co-owner of the funeral home.

Formaldehyde and other synthetic embalming fluids are prohibited. The bodies are cleaned up, like any other burial, and the family could arrange a private family visit to the funeral home before the body is finally buried.

Funeral containers are made of natural materials. It could be a biodegradable shroud, coffin or container made of wood, wicker, cardboard or other similar materials, Higgins said.

“It would be very similar to a funeral service that people are used to, except the casket would be a different type of material,” he said. “It’s an old way of doing things, but maybe the reason someone would choose it is a new way of thinking. “

The body arrives at the reserve where the rest of the preparations take place. Whispering Hills is certified as a natural cemetery by the Green Burial Council, a California-based nonprofit that describes standards and best practices for the industry.

Graves are dug and GPS coordinates are marked so that family members can locate their loved one after the burial. The graves for the wrapped bodies are dug about three feet deep and those for the containers are just a little deeper.

Ordinary earth and topsoil are separated. Ordinary soil is first poured over the shroud or container, then topsoil is added to promote plant growth. A special flora of the property is then planted on the tomb.

“If you bury them three feet deep, they pretty much go back to nature,” Ralph said as he stood in front of a model grave on a nearly 1.5-hour tour of the property. this week.

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Ralph Howard gestures towards an endangered plant colony at Whispering Hills Memorial Nature Preserve on April 19, 2021 in LaGrange, GA Madeleine Cook [email protected]

“You have a microbial action. … If you would take a shovel and dig it up and get yourself a Petri dish and start playing with it, you would soon see things grow, ”he added. “I mean, everything is alive. You don’t think about it, but it is.

A stone found on the property becomes the headstone, showing the person’s name, date of birth and date of death.

The process is generally less expensive than a standard burial. A single space for a natural burial in Whispering Hills costs $ 3,000. You can also bury or scatter your loved one’s ashes for $ 450. The ash is combined with specially formulated soil to promote plant growth.

Green burials represent a very small but growing segment of the American funeral industry. The National Funeral Directors Association reports that 14% of Americans over 40 say they would choose a green burial and about 62% are open to exploring it.

The association predicts that the number of cremations in the United States will increase over the next decades, reaching 78.4% in 2040.

Higgins, LaGrange’s funeral director, said the concept of green burials may become more widely accepted over time – just as cremation is now.

“Once that change happens, it’s hard to go back,” he said. “Cremation 20 to 30 years ago was a very small percentage of the market. … It can happen slowly, but I think the demand for green burials will increase over time. “

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Jeanette tk walking through the Whispering Hills Memorial Nature Preserve on April 19, 2021 in LaGrange, Georgia, chose to be buried there. Madeleine Cook [email protected]

Why bury a loved one in Whispering Hills?

The first ceremony at Whispering Hills was not the burial of a body. At noon Thursday, the ashes of Kathleen Harmon, May Raby and Alan Raby came to rest on the reserve.

Kemp Freeman kept the ashes of the three for several years. Kathleen is her mother, May is her grandmother, and Alan is her uncle.

He waited for the right moment to let them go, finally deciding to Whispering Hills. He wanted to keep the mother side of the family in Troup County, and Alan was friends with Ralph Howard. It was right.

“It’s a nice place. God has led me in this direction, ”he said. “It puts them in a peaceful place. “

Little, the retired state court judge, said when her time came she would be shrouded and buried somewhere in the Whispering Hills grounds.

She always felt at peace in nature. As a young girl, Little’s mother often quoted poems. One of his favorites was the second stanza of “A Psalm of Life” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “

Life is real! Life is serious!

And the grave is not his goal;

You are dust, the dust is coming back,

We weren’t talking about the soul.

It is the spirit that lives, not the flesh and the body, says Little.

“The soul is gone, therefore the body is no more,” she said. “I would like it to become a part of nature instead of being stuck in a box forever and ever, taking up space in this beautiful world that we have.”

This story was originally published April 22, 2021 6:00 a.m.

Nick Wooten is the Southern Trends and Culture reporter for the Southern McClatchy region. He is based in Columbus, Ga at the Ledger-Enquirer, but his work also appears in The (Macon) Telegraph and The Sun Herald in Biloxi. Prior to joining McClatchy, he worked for The (Shreveport La.) Times covering city government and investigations. He graduated from Mercer University in Macon, Georgia.

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