According to the old saw, the only certainties are death and taxes. But in the West Asheville storefront shared by Bury Me Naturally and Farm Girl Garden Design, the sure things seem more like death and life. One company offers garden design and native flora; the other specializes in natural mortuary arrangements.
On the ground floor of the Haywood Road shop, customers can admire floral arrangements, planters and jars of dried herbs. But the balcony above displays a series of colorfully decorated cardboard caskets that are Bury Me Naturally's signature stock-in-trade.
"Death was something I was attracted to," owner Carol Motley explains. The former English teacher says her forays into such Southern gothic authors as Flannery O'Connor were always punctuated by the recurring theme of the inevitable end of life. "It just seemed to be a prevalent thing in literature," she notes.
Motley's fascination, however, began long before. As a child, she was exploring a rural wooded area with family members when they came upon what appeared to be an old unmarked cemetery. A nearby tree had uprooted, and in the exposed root ball, they spied what they decided were probably human bones. But rather than scaring the heck out of Motley, it changed her ideas about burial sites.
"I didn't know you could do that," she says. "I found it a lot more appealing to be buried in the woods."
Years later, Motley began looking into the history and practice of undertaking. She eventually read Mark Harris' 2007 book Grave Matters, which analyzes modern American burial methods and champions simpler, more environmentally sensitive alternatives. "I thought, 'My God: That makes a lot more sense,'" she remembers.
In 2008, Motley launched a home business arranging natural burials, a niche that seemed a good fit with many Asheville residents' alternative and green attitudes. And last November, she opened her shop, which is filled with publications touting the benefits of earth-friendly burial. Letting the deceased literally return to dust, she notes, "is not a new idea; I didn't make this up. It's just coming back in vogue."
Motley contacted Green Hills Cemetery off the Leicester Highway, which agreed to set aside a wooded area. Goats rented from Wells Farm in Horse Shoe clear the vegetation, and after the burial, Farm Girl Garden Design steps in to decorate the site with native plants.
A community effort
Even the caskets are locally made. Although cardboard caskets were already available, Motley found none with the traditional tapered shape. A packaging company in Arden agreed to make them, and the models on display at the shop were decorated by Asheville-area artists using Earthpaint, another local product. Continuing the theme, local designer Brooke Priddy (who owns Ship to Shore) creates burial shrouds using Asheville-made organic cotton Spiritex fabrics.
For those seeking a somewhat more durable product, the Candler-based Green Casket Co. offers hand-hewn pine boxes. A hand-dug grave and a biodegradable coffin add up to a significantly smaller environmental footprint, which seems to appeal to folks who want to return to the earth rather than being embalmed and encased in bronze to delay the inevitable.
"Cool people die," notes Motley. "Cool people die all the time, and they're not going to want a big metal casket decorated with a bunch of crap."
Her custom burial arrangements run about $3,000 to $4,000. The ceremony can also be tailored to meet the guest of honor's musical tastes, with several local musicians — including a mariachi band — on tap to supply the soundtrack.
Meanwhile, Farm Girl owner Lauri Newman is working on a landscaping master plan for Green Hills' natural-burial section. Newman, who moved into the space last October, also got her start working out of her home; she gradually made a name around West Asheville designing gardens, landscaping and supplying cut flowers to Haywood Road restaurants. The business, says Newman, lets her blend her three passions: science, nature and art.
She now has gardens she established at the Universal Joint, the Sunny Point Café and The Admiral to complement a host of residential clients. "Once I got Farm Girl established, it's been full speed ahead," she notes, adding that while she currently has two full-time employees, she'll likely need additional seasonal workers as spring advances.
Moving into the shop has enabled Farm Girl to expand into herbs and retail sales as well, and Newman hopes to eventually move into herbal medicine. She also plans to start offering gardening supplies soon. "Diversity is a sign of health for a business," Newman maintains. "You have to do more than one thing."
But the real key, she says, is following your heart. "You gotta have a lot of ambition," notes Newman. "If you love what you do, the drive is going to be there."
Motley agrees, emphasizing that a small business typically becomes one's whole life. "Don't do it if you're not passionate about it," she warns, "because it will consume you. It has to be a deep passion."
Preferably at least 6 feet deep.
[Brian Postelle is an Asheville-based communications specialist.]