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Local Cemetery Takes on the Funeral Industry

October 15, 2010

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Local Cemetery Takes on the Funeral Industry

imageMost people don’t find a funeral service by seeing it on a T-shirt. They open a phone book or a helpful nurse or minister murmurs a name.

But T-shirts are how Michael Bishop?s been advertising his business.

On the simple, bright blue T-shirts is a white-lettered explanation of what you get for $800 at Dust to Dust Green Burial Cemetery: an 8-by-10-foot plot complete with opening and closing (i.e., gravedigging, body insertion and re-covering). Caskets are optional. No vaults or embalming are allowed.

The T-shirts work, Bishop says ? but not usually right away. When people first see them, they joke or make faces.

?Usually it?s the immediate reaction ? and then six months later they buy from me,? Bishop says. ?Because they?ve had time to make an intelligent decision. I laugh at the people who mock and then later buy from me.?

Bishop?s customers are among the increasing numbers of people rejecting the modern funeral industry and choosing to be buried naturally. Some are in it for the cost, which is much lower than a burial and even than a cremation. And some are in it because they want their death to help rather than hurt the environment: no embalming chemicals leaching into the groundwater, no trees cut down only to be made into caskets and buried, no half-ton metal vaults under the earth; no energy-sucking cremations.

As a Christian, Bishop says green burial just makes sense to him.

?Your soul?s gone; you?re just the shell,? Bishop says. ?And what?s the best thing to do with that shell when you?re gone? If you can benefit something with your death ? and I believe you do, you benefit nature by doing it ? if your body can do one more good thing in death, well, why not do it??

Bishop has taken the day off from his regular job today. He wears a flannel shirt, jeans, a grubby baseball cap. His Swansea country-boy accent seems to highlight his sincerity.

?Even if you?re embalmed and all, it?s still not a pleasant decomposition,? he says. ?You are going to decompose. It?s just a lot quicker and more natural my way.?

He?s not on a crusade, he says. Sure, he?s gotten a little frustrated with local coroners dragging their feet. He wishes he didn?t have to struggle with local agencies and hospitals to get them to simply obey state law. But he thinks he?s in it for the right reasons.

?I?m not anti-funeral home,? Bishop says. ?I?m not anti-embalming. I just think everybody should have their choice.?

Michael White tosses a jawbone fragment back to the ground.

?Nothing lasts long around here,? he says. ?Everything gets eaten by something.?

The little fox skeleton, compact and clean, lies amid native plants and trees ? holly bushes, oaks, sourwoods, cottonwoods ? in a half-sunlit glade.

Wasps buzz past. Deer crash through the bushes. A gray fox ? this one alive ? slinks through the grasses near her den. Everything around is alive, humming.

The southeastern Lexington County town of Swansea is about a 35-minute drive from downtown Columbia. The soil here is sandy, with none of the red clays and igneous intrusions of the edge of the Piedmont around Columbia. These are the sandhills of the bottom half of South Carolina, with rolling hills and scrubby oaks and sand everywhere.

Here, outside Swansea, two acres of Bishop family land are zoned for the cemetery, with room to grow. Next to the cemetery, Bishop?s mom, Judy Bishop, has a trim white house, with goats and horses and farm equipment parked under the trees. Near the property are more than 400 acres of protected swampland owned by Boozer Lumber.

A retired Marine originally from West Texas, White now shoes horses, among other jobs, and helps Bishop out with the cemetery.

When he was a Marine, White says, he had to open a few caskets of people dead for several years. Casketed bodies break down too, he says, no matter how airtight and protective the casket and vault are supposed to be. But those bodies are nothing like the sun-bleached, scavenger-cleaned fox skeleton at his feet.

?Inside it?s soup. Just soup,? he says.

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