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Mills River Burial Ground Protected With Permanent Conservation Easement

A meadow at the Carolina Memorial Sanctuary in Mills River.
Conserving Carolina

The Carolina Memorial Sanctuary in Mills River recently donated a permanent conservation easement to Conserving Carolina, assuring that this burial ground will remain a beautiful natural environment forever.

The 11-acre sanctuary includes a wildflower meadow, woodlands, a creek that flows into the French Broad River, and a wetland.

The sanctuary uses green burial practices to ensure that bodies can go back to nature, in an environmentally friendly way. Bodies are buried without embalming chemicals, in a shroud or casket that will break down underground. Bodies are buried only three feet deep so plants’ roots can access the nutrients. After burial, wildflowers or trees grow back over the graves. In the case of cremation, the remains are amended to balance the pH of the soil. No bodies are buried near the stream or the wetland.

Carolina Memorial Sanctuary is the only cemetery in North Carolina that the Green Burial Council lists as a conservation burial ground, its highest level of certification. The sanctuary is also a founding member of the Conservation Burial Alliance.

Conserving Carolina’s land protection director Tom Fanslow says, “Families and friends can rest assured that the sanctuary will remain just that– a sanctuary for the natural world that will cycle the remains of their loved one into the web of life that our conservation work has protected in perpetuity. The remains will become not just part of the site, but part of trees, soil, wildflowers, meadows, and all manner of fauna. And because the land was formerly degraded pasture, conservation burials in the sanctuary actively help heal nature. Plus it’s a great place to take a stroll to see the monarch butterflies.”

Cassie Barrett, operations manager at the sanctuary, says, “Conservation burial is important because it pays close attention to how we are treating the earth and what we put into the earth. As a certified conservation burial ground, Carolina Memorial Sanctuary has to follow strict guidelines and so we dig all the graves by hand, making sure to disturb the earth as little as possible and only use biodegradable materials, sourced locally and sustainably whenever possible. In addition to this, the land is protected in perpetuity as a conservation site that can only be used for conservation burial, and we are actively restoring and rehabilitating the land.”

Conserving Carolina helped the sanctuary secure grant funding for an ambitious habitat restoration project. When lay Buddhist minister Caroline Yongue started the sanctuary in 2014, the property was a tract of abandoned farmland overrun with invasive plants including kudzu and bamboo. The sanctuary is now in the process of cultivating native tress and plants, stabilizing stream banks, and restoring a wetland that was partially filled in.

As part of an ongoing partnership between the sanctuary and the land trust, Carolina Memorial Sanctuary donates a portion of its proceeds to Conserving Carolina.

“The green and natural burial practices offered by Carolina Memorial Sanctuary reduce environmental impacts associated with more conventional internments,” said Conserving Carolina executive director Kieran Roe. “CMS’s commitment to conservation burial goes a step further in preserving the environment through the commitment of a portion of burial fees to Conserving Carolina for land acquisition, protection, restoration, and management. We very much appreciate this support and the chance to partner with CMS in protecting and restoring their site.”

Americans are increasingly interested in green burial, which can be lower-cost as well as more eco-friendly than a conventional funeral. According to a recent New York Times article, nearly 54% of Americans say they would be interested in a green burial.

Conserving Carolina is a local land trust dedicated to protecting land and water, promoting good stewardship, and creating opportunities for people to enjoy nature. Learn more at www.conservingcarolina.org.