When hearing the phrase “being in nature” or “natural setting”, each of us will likely manifest our own unique mental image of what that means to us. This image can change through the years, as we age or as our physical capacity for outdoor enjoyment/activities diminishes or increases. “Natural” is a broad category. In narrowing this down to fit within the parameters of natural burial, public park, contemplation, conservation, etc. for Carolina Memorial Sanctuary, we quickly realized we needed guidelines, lots of guidelines, and structure.
When we first purchased the Sanctuary property in December 2015, nature had the freedom to go wild for decades. It was almost impossible to penetrate the property. There was one maintained trail that a person could walk on from the parking area to make their way to the property’s southern border. Nature at that point was unruly; bittersweet vines were so dense and thick, they were literally pulling trees down. I will admit, it was difficult to envision a burial ground through the weeds and invasive trees! In January of 2016, a forestry crew was hired to deal with this overgrowth. Within 3 weeks, all of the (above ground) undesirable elements of “nature gone wild” were made into mulch. It was a shock to see how quickly nature could be changed. I had grown used to unruly and now we had tidy. Within a few days I was able to appreciate the exposed terrain and beauty of this piece of land.
And then, spring arrived… fast. Now that the land had more sun and air, all of the vegetation that was cut off above ground was growing with a vengeance. I had grown used to tidy, and here again, was the rush of wild. During the summer, many beautiful wildflowers appeared; Joe Pye Weed was growing up to 8’ tall and orange butterfly weed attracted swallowtails and monarchs. It was so lovely. Along with desirable plants, the poison ivy, privet, bittersweet and kudzu were also making headway. I often held a sense of unease and fear seeing how nature can change so quickly, causing practical and financial consequences. In late summer, I was able to relax and enjoy the beauty of it all. It’s pretty amazing how when holding a broad view, the image can be pleasing and welcoming. When narrowing down to a one foot square, I found distress in seeing poison ivy or brambles. I have learned to hold a broad view for longer periods of time.
The fall season provided its own unique qualities and after the first snowfall for that winter season, one could see that nature had taken care of nature and compressed the stalks of the previous summer’s growth. The flux in vegetation is part of the natural life cycle of the Sanctuary. During the spring and summer, there will be an abundance of growth. In fall and winter, the land is exposed again. And that is the cycle. I am now grateful in new ways, for the changing of seasons and the ability to hold a broad view in order to see the big picture.
Now in our third summer season, we made the decision to hire an expert to take care of vegetation and trail maintenance here at the Sanctuary. Shaun Moore of SM Soil and Water Management and his crew have taken on the seemingly never-ending task of exotic and invasive plant management. Their methods are environmentally responsible, paying special attention to minimizing impact to our existing native plants. Shaun is now beginning our creek and wetland restoration for which we received $146,000 in grant funds. You will see this work happening through the beginning of 2020.
In the past when introducing new trees and plants to the Sanctuary, we would narrow our focus to a specific grave site in making decisions regarding memorial gifts such as wildflowers, shrubs, trees, and benches. We realized that if we hold this narrow focus, the placement of these gifts could become lopsided. Holding a big picture and broad view has shown us that we now need to create a master plan. Stepping back to include the entire Sanctuary, we want to look across the landscape and see nature. The total number and placement of benches and trees, for example may not coincide with specific grave sites. When visiting the Sanctuary you may see a few new memorial plant plaques. This seemed like a wonderful idea when we first opened, to mark these gifts and now, again taking a broad view, we realize it is not practical and will not provide our desired effect. We want to provide a natural setting and markers on hundreds of gifted trees (over time) could distract from our goal. At this point, and moving forward, we will be mindful about the placement of memorial gifts. We ask our guests and visitors to expand their vision of the Sanctuary, beyond their own grave or the grave of a loved one. Your memorial gift can help us create your Sanctuary. Your gift of a bench or plant may be better suited to a location other than next to a specific grave.
This broad view will also apply to how we tend graves. As we get more and more burials and markers, it’s not practical and would negatively impact the landscape if we kept every grave marker clear of vegetation. We do try to keep some of the graves more tidy (especially those that are visited frequently) and we’re always happy to clear the vegetation around a grave if someone is planning on paying a visit and gives us advance notice.
At the Sanctuary, as with plants, so with stone grave markers. As a certified member of the Green Burial Council and having a conservation easement, we are required to follow guidelines regarding the geological impact we make on our planet. We require native stone markers consistent with the geology of our site. No granite, river stones (this disrupts the riverbed habitat), or other non-native materials are allowed. The size of the stone is in proportion to the size of the grave. We set grave marker size guidelines so that the ground will not be completely covered with stone.
Now, two and a half years after we made the final decision to purchase the land for Carolina Memorial Sanctuary, the rewards of our choice are far greater than our projected fears and risks. In addition to providing a service that is rare and unusual, we are also learning to care for land in a way that requires patience, gentle hands and the capacity to shift and change as seasons do the same. The greatest gift is to experience how our work affects the opening of our own hearts. Our volunteers and staff have learned to guide our community to see that death is part of life and to show that caring for our loved ones may be extended beyond the last breath. Many of our visitors and guests have come to understand that not only is this precious land a place to gift our body to the earth, it is also a place to find joy and peace in life.
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