WILMOT, Ohio -- Atop a hillside in the Sugar Creek Valley, Gordon Maupin trains binoculars on a blue jay as it lands on a tree; a flock of cedar waxwings flies past him.
At the simple entrance to this former farm, an engraved stone perched on boulders says "Foxfield Preserve." What you see on these 43 acres are rolling hills, wildflowers, tall trees and sky.
What you don't see is that it's also the nation's first nature preserve cemetery operated by a conservation group. Essentially, it may be the cemetery of the future.
There are no marble monuments or wrought-iron gates, no groundskeeper in sight.
"It's a nature preserve first. It's not going to be at all like a traditional cemetery," said Mr. Maupin, executive director of The Wilderness Center, a nonprofit organization that teaches people of all ages to conserve land and other natural resources.
The goal is to achieve an environmental twofer -- offer natural burials that skip many of the costs of a modern funeral and, after creating a natural cemetery, conserve and reforest land that might otherwise be developed.
Located in a rural community two hours west of Pittsburgh, Foxfield Preserve opened in August and has had three burials and two scatterings of ashes. Burial sites can be marked with an engraved natural stone of granite, sandstone or flagstone, as well as a tree or flowers.
Foxfield goes far beyond the green burials offered locally by Rose Memorial Park in Westmoreland County and Greenwood Cemetery in O'Hara. Those are considered "hybrids" -- the lowest level of natural burial -- because they're done in a traditional cemetery, said Joe Sehee, executive director of the national Green Burial Council. The deceased, who is not embalmed, is placed either in a shroud or biodegradable coffin and the grave has no concrete vault.
Foxfield is considered the highest level of natural burial. It takes place on land where there is detailed planning to conserve the property, restore the forest, remove invasive species and create wildlife habitat, all of it overseen by an independent steward.
Here, natural burial is required of all. Stone markers are optional. Cremated remains can be buried, too.
Mark Harris, author of "Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial," applauded the philosophy behind Foxfield Preserve.
"That's an extremely thoughtful project that parses the best principles of green burial with the best practices of land conservation," he said.
Mr. Maupin, the man who initiated the enterprise, is a biologist from Missouri. He calls himself an "ecopreneur" and says it took a year for the wilderness center's 40-member board to agree to the venture. He works closely with Jennifer Quinn, a trained forester and botanist who is steward of Foxfield Preserve.
Mr. Maupin drew his inspiration from Ramsey Creek Preserve, a 37-acre natural cemetery that opened in 1998 in Westminster, S.C. Unlike Foxfield Preserve, Ramsey Creek is not affiliated with a nature center.
Plans call for 100 to 200 burials per acre. By contrast, traditional cemeteries include 1,000 burials per acre. The $3,600 10-by-20-foot large plots at Foxfield allow for two people in coffins. Half of the fee pays for the burial and goes to Foxfield Preserve; the other half is a tax-deductible donation to The Wilderness Center.
The price does not include opening or closing the grave, planting a native tree or shrub or installing an engraved stone. So far, 23 plots have been sold.
To abide by an Ohio law that requires Ms. Quinn to locate a grave precisely, a certified land surveyor created a plat map of the site and installed 200 numbered cemetery pins. A handheld GPS receiver allows visitors to find a grave.
Graves are 3 1/2 feet deep and topped with two yards of dirt.
"Six feet deep is something of a myth for all cemeteries," Mr. Maupin said, adding that graves need to be deep enough but above the water table.
This year's burials, Mr. Maupin said, were a moving experience partly because family members participated in shoveling dirt for an hour.
"You can just feel the emotion in the air as people are closing the grave," Mr. Maupin said, adding that some family members read poems and Bible passages while the work proceeded.
"It's just powerful to watch. To me, it was a healing process."
Mr. Maupin's love of the land is palpable. As he surveys Foxfield Preserve, he outlines the possibilities.
"Twenty years from now, this will be what we call a pole stand forest with trees 4 to 6 feet in diameter. It will take 50 years for it to look like a real forest. In 500 years, this will be a natural jewel."
The natural cemetery movement is growing. The paperback edition of "Grave Matters," due out in December, will list 20 green burial grounds in the United States; the 2007 hardback edition listed five.
Mr. Maupin sees great potential for this model because the United States has about 1,000 wilderness centers.
"I'd love to see this become the standard rather than the cutting edge, off-the-wall thing," he said. "As a biologist, you know that dust to dust is inevitable. Nature will reclaim its own."
Marylynne Pitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1648.