Communique: Is New Hanover County Ready For Green Burial? | 4 Speakers On Tuesday, 5/8

May 3, 2018

A retired Wilmington physician wants "Conservation Burial" to become a part of the New Hanover County landscape. On Tuesday, May 8, four experts in Conservation, Green, and Natural burial are holding a symposium on the topic at Waterman's Brewing Company in Wrightsville Beach.

The discussion, called Forever Green, begins at 6:30 pm, and the first round is on the sponsors. Waterman's Brewing Company is at 1610 Pavilion Place. 

Funeral Consumers Alliance Coastal Carolina sponsors this event. The guest speakers are Jeff Masten & Heidi Hannepel (from Land Matters and Conservation Burial Alliance), Mike Bishop of Dust to Dust Cemetery, and Ronnie Watts of Greenhaven Preserve

Listen to an abbreviated interview with Dr. Ragozzino above; see our extended interview below. For more information about this event, contact Rebecca Taylor at 910-763-7149.

Gina:      How did you first get interested in green burial? What is your background or your perspective that made green burial pique your interest?

Mark:      I'm a physician, I'm a neuro-radiologists by trade. I'm retired now. And when I first moved to Wilmington 30-something years ago, I was fortunate enough to buy a beautiful piece of land near my house that's probably 300 yards from my house. And over the years I've become very attached to that piece of land and I've sought ways of preserving that land in posterity. Never having houses, never having a baseball field, never having a soccer field. Not that I'm against all this, but just I wanted it to remain as a forest. At the time I was contemplating that, I came across some websites by Billy Campbell who started the first conservation burial ground in, in the United States, which is located in South Carolina. And the idea intrigued me and I looked into this more and more. And I was fortunate enough not to have to sell this property. And so I've held on to it with the hope that at some point, the general population will be enlightened to the point where they accept natural burials and I can make that into a conservation burial ground. My wife and I want to be buried there.

Gina:      Are you familiar with the Land Trust?

Mark:      Yes. I'm a donor to the Land Trust and we're very involved with them.

Gina:      Just in terms of, I wonder if they could help in any way with that.

Mark: We've actually, over probably 15 years I've been working with the Land Trust or trying to convince the Land Trust to pursue this idea. It's obviously a controversial idea and I think they're a little hesitant to engage in such a controversial idea. Their structure of their conservation easements are such that it might disturb some potential donors of land to them. And I understand that completely.

Gina:      Why is conservation burial or green burial controversial?

Mark:      So I'm not sure. Since the Civil War, people have been traditionally embalmed, shown in fairly sterile environments in a funeral home, buried in these very expensive caskets. Embalmed bodies are contained within concrete vaults or grave liners. They're placed in cemeteries with extensive lawns that need to be maintained into to posterity. All at great expense. We've somehow distorted the dying process. We've converted a process that is a fundamental aspect of life-we all are going to die-into something that's disconnected from life. And why anybody would be afraid of a conservation burial is unknown to me. 

I'll give you a family experience.  My father in law passed away fortunately at home. He was a do it yourself type guy.  He died at home. We  dressed him at home, washed him at home. We built his casket. He had already had a grave site picked out and we approached the cemetery saying we wanted to bury him ourselves. That was apparently against the rules. So they took this man who we all loved out of our house that evening. We didn't see him until the next morning and we buried them.

The beginning part to the point where we put them in the casket was very satisfying and provided closure.  Him being walked out of the house by the funeral directors was very upsetting, the rule in this particular cemetery in Massachusetts. I don't know why that would exist, but it seemed like we could have participated more in the burial and had greater closure.

My father on the other hand, when I told him about this experience, thought it was the weirdest thing going and said, don't you ever do that to me. I want to be embalmed. I want a big casket. I want metal. I want to be in a concrete vault. And I don't understand his point of view, but that's what we did.  People have different ideas. 

The nice thing about conservation burial grounds is that forever you will have a forest that will be your legacy. You will not have, for example, the cemetery at the corner of Shipyard and 17th, with plastic flowers and the barren sterile landscape. You'll have a forest with deer and people be able to walk through it and hike through it, picnic in it.  To answer your question, I have no idea why people would object to a conservation burial.

Gina:      I think the idea of getting embalmed and kind of secured in a metal casket and airtight and a concrete vaults kind of thing- it feels like somehow, in some way, you're protected as a dead person.

Mark:      That may be an issue, but it is a fraudulent issue. Caskets are going to degrade, the water is going to seep in. If there's flooding, you haven't airtight, presumably, casket which is going to break through the ground and bob up to the surface. One of the speakers at this upcoming conference was in an area that had received floods. He said that all the traditional cemeteries with caskets had caskets floating around, bobbing around in the water. On his site, which had no caskets, the bodies stayed where they were supposed to stay.

People also underestimate the violence-and I use that word as precisely as I can-the violence of embalming. Here you are, you take a natural structure, the human body and you place these large cannulas into the body and you flush the body with Formaldehyde, which is a carcinogen for some unknown reason. In the old days before they had refrigeration at the time of the Civil War, they did that in order to transport the bodies home. And that's when embalming and this whole sort of distorted funeral process got started. But now there's refrigeration, there's dry ice, there are coolers, there are ways of handling a body so you can have a viewing, there can be closure even a couple of days after the death for family members who are far away, and then have a natural burial without the violence to, to your loved one.

Gina:      I think people are terrified about the idea of, of decay. Like that scares them more. And also, you were a doctor and one of the things I've heard is that doctors are the most likely to have DNRs, and doctors seem to be a lot more in touch with death and a lot more comfortable with death. Which I find fascinating because seeing death, seeing illness does not make doctors want to run farther away from death. It's like they are more accustomed to it, more comfortable with it. 

Mark:      Ironically, Billy Campbell Creek Preserve, the founder of the first conservation burial ground in the United States is a family physician in that small town. He's the only family physician. His wife who works in the same office is the manager of the cemetery. So in a Ted Talk that he gave, which is very interesting to watch, he really says his practice offers true cradle to grave care, kind of a humorous slant on things. But he has been the biggest proponent and the earliest proponent of conservation burial, ground burial grounds, and he obviously follows people for their entire lives until their death.  

Gina:      The overall overall discomfort with death and disconnection from death in the American culture in the United States. That it's a thing. We just don't, we can't handle it. We, we we are not connected to it. We are completely. We isolate ourselves from it. We don't want to know about it. We don't want to think about it. We don't want to prepare for it as a general trend.

Mark:      The medical, the experience of medical school and practicing medicine leads essentially all physicians to the conclusion that their ultimate worst nightmare of a death would be in the hospital, demented, and unaware of the surroundings. Having strangers come in and all hours of the night having, being awakened for vital signs. Things that you must do when you're in the hospital. So talking to my physician friends, everyone is committed to being at home, or in a very comforting homely home like hospice setting for their deaths. Nobody wants to die demented and unaware of their surroundings in the hospital, but unfortunately many people still done that way. And it's a horrible way to go. It's terrifying for the patient.

Gina:      What do you think happens when people die?

Mark:      What do I think happens when people die? Their biological functions cease, metabolic activity ends. They degrade and become part of the environment.  There's a wonderful children's story called the Nine-let's see, the 10 things about Barney. I think that's the name of the book. It's about this young boy who loses his cat and his father is trying to help him through grieving. And the child who was very bonded as cat is upset and he says, Well, we're going to place Barney into the ground and we're going to place a plant over Barney. And in years to come, this will be Barney. All his nutrients, all his molecules, all his atoms will become part of this plant and is a very beautiful story.  We're designed to die and degrade and become part of the ecosystem around us.

Gina:      On a physics level, molecules and everything else all came out of the big bang supposedly, or something like, and then it will all fall back in, it'll all happen again for infinity. Matter cannot be created or destroyed. Everything that's here has always been here and it will keep transforming as it does.

Mark:      You're exactly right. Every element in our body that has a greater atomic number than iron has been created from supernovas. And there's a lot.  So we're just all recycled materials, whether it be star dust, whether it be CO2 from the air that was recently breathed by an animal or recently emitted from an automobile. We're just recycled. And in a natural death, we hope to recycle ourselves without adding a bunch of other stuff to the environment that's not helpful.

Gina:      Let me ask you about this event. It's called Forever Green, Funeral Consumers Alliance Coastal Carolina. And it's out at Waterman's Brewing Company in Wrightsville beach. Folks are invited to come, it's at 6:30, and you have guest speakers.

Mark:      Jeff Masten and Heidi Hannepel are with two organizations. One is called Land Matters and the other is Conservation Burial Alliance. And both of these individuals are from the Land Trust world. And they're spearheading an effort to get a Land Trusts over the hump of conventional thinking and accepting green conservation burials as a way of preserving land and as a way of financing conservation efforts.

So there'll be the starting speakers and they'll give us a rundown of Land Trusts, of green burials, of conservation burials, which are slightly different. Then we'll be having Ronnie Watts who is a proprietor of Greenhaven Preserve, which is a 300 acre conservation Land Trust in Eastover, South Carolina. Beautiful property. Ronnie Watts is a wonderful soul, a gentle soul. He is a pleasure to listen to. And we'll also have speaking Michael Bishop, who is owner of Dust to Dust cemetery, which is a green burial.

Gina:      That's the $800 burial?

Mark:      Yes, yes. Mike Bishop and Ronnie Watts work closely together. They're sort of two different price points in two different philosophies. Ronnie Watts, I think it's charging $1,200 for a burial. Mike Bishop is charging $800 for a burial. Mike Bishop's philosophy, and I think it's a very true philosophy- most of his clients come from hospice or the hospice type environment.  And his observation is that the families have already grieved for the client, for their family member. They've experienced a long, painful demise and unfortunately, near the end, it's a painful thing to watch, you know. Hopefully are in the confines of a hospital where they can provide appropriate comfort care.

But his observation is over the years is that by the time people pass away in hospice, the family's completely exhausted. They are completely exhausted. And they appreciate the humaneness, the humanity of a quick, simple burial. And most was families that he deals with are relatively poor. So they appreciate, whether they know it at the time of the burial or not, the low cost.

He had a great story about this gentleman who had a $12,000 barrel insurance policy who approached him and said, well, I just want to make sure a $12,000 is enough for my burial.  And Mike said, well, I think the nicest thing for you to do is to cash out that policy. I'll bury you for $800, and then give the remaining monies to your family, who were very poor and do a road trip to Disneyland, for the whole extended family. And that's exactly what they did. And now when they look back at the grandfather, they look back with great love and affection on multiple levels. They didn't have to go through the torture of seeing this poor gentleman that they've known all their lives embalmed and lying there in some kind of bizarre state. And they had a wonderful trip to Disneyland as a family celebration of his death. It's a beautiful story. Brings tears to my eyes every time I think about it.

Gina:      And let me ask you, have you ever heard about the mushroom?

Mark:      Yes, yes, yes. There are literally tens, if not hundreds of variations of seed pods, mushroom pods. There's an entrepreneurial effort coming out of northwestern North Carolina and Seattle where they have these composting centers for human bodies. It's beautifully done. It's very elegant. And you basically deposit your family member into a compost pile and they've refined the bacterial process, so there's rapid to decay, and then you can use that compost for gardening and whatever. And that's mainly designed for high density cities, you know, New York ... But it makes a lot of sense. There's a couple of Ted talks on that topic as well. And this woman who's leading the charge is very compelling. 

Gina:      What about cremation? The way it's done now.

Cremation is certainly a better alternative than being buried with metal caskets, concrete vaults, embalming.  But there is an environmental cost of cremation and there's something inherently sort of uncomfortable, to me anyway, about cremation. You take a natural compound that might provide nutrients to the environment and you incinerated creating a lot of carbon dioxide, methane mercury oxidation products from dental fillings at a significant cost of a couple thousand dollars. And the fossil fuel required to perform a cremation is the equivalent of driving a car across the United States. So that's not the most natural process in the world. And the one advantage of conservation and green burials over that process is that by engaging in a conservation green burial, you are preserving for eternity, a piece of land. You're not preserving anything when you do a cremation.

Gina:      Basically you, you had a career as neuro radiologist and you moved to North Carolina ...

Mark:      I moved to North Carolina after finishing my residency and fellowship and worked with the DeLaney Radiologists for 30 something years and retired in 2015.

Gina:      So you recently retired and you have a beautiful piece of land that you know- and this is what's gotten you really focused on green burial - you know what you want done with yourself, you and your wife and you want to be on a beautiful piece of land. You found out more about it and you're trying to figure out a way to make this happen here.

Mark:      One fear I have, and this has happened with the Audubon Sanctuary and Nature Conservancy, is simply donating this piece of property to a conservation entity does not necessarily preserve this into eternity.

This piece of land I have is a valuable piece of land. It's in the center of New Hanover County. I could easily developed this with 60 or 80 houses on there.  I'm afraid that whoever I bequeath this too, after my wife and I are gone, if it was a nature conservancy or something like that, could potentially make the call saying, well, we should sell that piece of land to buy this other piece of land. So my land will become a housing development and apartment complex, soccer fields. I play soccer so I don't have any problem about soccer fields. But on this particular piece of land with all those trees, I want it to stay forest. So that's the reason why I'm going toward this cemetery solution, because I know once you put a serious number of people there, nobody's going to come back and try to put houses on it or a soccer field

Gina:      It would freak people out too much.

Mark:      Yes.

Gina:      Maybe you should just start burying people there anyway.

Mark:      It's actually possible to bury people on your own property.

Gina:      Is it?

Mark:      Yes. You can bury people on your own property.  you have to jump through a bunch of hoops.  You, you cannot make a commercial cemetery on your own piece of property unless it's greater than 30 acres and you get special use permits and there's a lot of bureaucracy as you'd expect. And there's nothing wrong with that. It's just takes time and money. And I think most people who have a parcel of land in within New Hanover County will say, I don't want to accept the grief and the potential backlash from neighbors by approaching this concept. I'll just develop it like every other person does.

Let me just bring up one interesting thing and there was a very nice article in the Star News in October of 2017, I think it was by Hunter Ingram. And he was bringing to the forefront the shortage of burial space in Wilmington and New Hanover County now and looming up in the near future. At the same time, there is a drive to increase park acreage in New Hanover County and the city of Wilmington, increase green space, which currently is being done at great expense. It seems like the conservation burial ground and this push for green space are really aiming in the same direction and can converge with a no cost or low cost solution for achieving two goals that the county and city have to address right now.  

Mark:      The purpose of this Symposium is to start the educational process in Wilmington and New Hanover County. This is the first time, to my knowledge that this type of education has been provided and the Funeral Consumer Alliance, Coastal Carolina has been thoughtful enough to sponsor this. 

Gina:      What do you think are the obstacles that you have in terms of your goals in this?

Mark:      Right now ... the big goals would be obtaining a special use permit for the property and  obtaining an understanding with the adjacent neighbors. This is in my immediate neighborhood, so I'm willing to live with this. It would seem that most people would rather have a beautiful woodland behind their house or near their house than 60 or 80 houses. To me that's a no brainer. I would rather have the woodland, but that's not a universal thought. So I think the biggest impediment now would be achieving a special use permit and getting an understanding with the neighbors that this is a good thing, an education of the neighbors that this is a good thing and actually will enhance property values.

Gina:      Have you spoken to any County commissioners about this?

Mark:      No. Maybe informally over drinks or something, but not as a formal presentation. I have some informational packets I've sent to the planning commission manager to inform the government of this event, thinking it might be an educational event. I've also notified, sent an email to Bill Saffo and let him know that this event is occurring May 8th to see if anybody from the city of Wilmington would like to attend.

Gina:      Do you have a backup plan for your burial in case this doesn't work?

Mark:      The burial ground in South Carolina, this place called Green Haven Preserve and this speaker will be at a this imposing them on May eighth at 6:30 at Waterman's. It's a beautiful place. My wife is going there. I'm going to be donating my body to a medical center.

Gina:      Oh, are you?

Mark:  Because somebody was nice enough to donate themselves to me when I was a medical student. I have some payback to do so.