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Greg Ballentine: Planning in a big way

During the summer of 2013 a new and architecturally significant addition was made to the numerous impressive monuments that grace Columbia's historic Elmwood Memorial Gardens.

The Gregory Nelson Ballentine mausoleum at Elmwood Memorial Gardens
The Gregory Nelson Ballentine mausoleum at Elmwood Memorial Gardens
Jennifer Weber

It is difficult to miss the elegant mausoleum recently erected by Gregory Nelson Ballentine. Just drive through the main entrance and look to your right, and there it is.

The first mausoleum inside the grounds.

And it is a beauty. Narrow but substantial, the structure occupies a prime six-plot space coped in the same smooth granite of which the small mausoleum itself is constructed.

On the side of the building which faces the entrance, a name and beginning date -- with requisite dash -- is carved:

BALLENTINE

GREGORY NELSON

1958 -

Beneath the name of the man whose earthly remains will someday be entombed there is engraved a cryptic sentiment often seen in old English cemeteries:

Remember man as you pass by, as you are now so once was I, as I am now so must you be, remember man that you must die.

The double doors are of burnished bronze with a design incorporating the owner's initial "B."

Ballentine has chosen the lower compartment to someday house his own casket. There is space for a second interment above but so far, no future occupant has been specified.

Being possessed of a droll -- even impish -- sense of humor, the genial Ballentine enjoys decorating the empty space in his someday-tomb.

Last October, if one peered inside, a startle was in store. For on the "top shelf" rested a life-sized replica of a mostly-decomposed human skeleton.

The "corpse" is still parked there. On the face is a most convincing death-grimace. Upon closer scrutiny, those who enjoy black humor will see it's all very tongue-in-cheek.

Later the skeletal "remains" were draped coyly in a voluminous Confederate flag.

In January we arranged a meeting with the creative and courteous Ballentine, who met us at his mausoleum for a photo shoot. It was a cold day; we later repaired to the nearby Lizard's Thicket for coffee and a chat.

We wanted to know what had prompted Ballentine, a former software developer for SCE&G and still a relatively young man, to plan for and purchase his mausoleum.

Turns out that in 2002, during the course of treatment for a deviated septum, then forty-four-year-old Ballentine's doctors discovered a malignant tumor in his sinuses.

What followed was the stark reality of two surgeries and as much radiation as Ballentine's body will ever be able to withstand. Ballentine feared he was done for.

"I didn't think I had thirty more years," he says.

But five years later -- during which time his survival rate was estimated at twenty percent -- Ballentine received the welcome news that he was at last free of cancer and its threat.

During the life-and-death crisis, Ballentine took stock.

"I thought that I'd better start getting my affairs in order," he said.

When it comes to burial grounds he prefers cemeteries, where headstones and other higher-profile monuments are allowed, to memorial parks featuring mostly flat bronze plaque-like grave markers.

"I like monuments. I love monuments. I'd like to be remembered," he revealed.

Having already purchased the prime Elmwood plot with space for six graves, Ballentine decided to develop his real estate.

The idea of placing a mausoleum on the plot didn't occur to him at first. But, with help and guidance from Elmwood's own Susie Baier, the decision to choose a genuine "statement piece" emerged.

With Baier's assistance, Ballentine came up with a design for his mausoleum. In due time the order was placed.

So it was that last June, a truck arrived in Columbia bearing the burden of Gregory Nelson Ballentine's tomb. Ruts caused by the complicated and heavy transport can still be seen in the blacktop of Elmwood's entrance.

"Whatever your wishes are, that's all they are: wishes," says Ballentine.

He makes a clear and convincing case for detailed pre-planning of not only one's burial site, but what adornments -- whether simple or elaborate -- will identify one's final resting place.

"What you want, plan for it," says Ballentine. "Don't wait until it's too late."

Ballentine wanted something beautiful and impressive to mark the spot of his interment.

"Something that says, 'I lived,'" he says.

And he got just that. But as fascinating a process as it proved to be, he isn't finished.

Ballentine plans to further enhance his mausoleum by adding landscaping, benches -- "The kind with backs," he says -- and perhaps even a piece of statuary.

When asked what type of statue he would choose, the good-natured grin that is never far from Ballentine's face returns.

He asks if we are familiar with a statue that (famously) stands in the English Cemetery in Florence, Italy. The statue is known as the Memento Mori.

"It's not an angel," says Ballentine. "Think the opposite of an angel."

Ah. The Grim Reaper. Now that will be a statement piece to write home about.

And when the time comes that a replica of the Memento Mori decorates the courtyard of Gregory Nelson Ballentine's exquisitely-crafted crypt, you may rest assured you will read about it here on Examiner.

Jennifer Weber is the owner of Angel Funeral Photography and Jennifer Weber Photography. When she's not preoccupied with casual portraiture, funeral photography, or taking pictures in cemeteries just for fun, she blogs at I'm Having A Thought Here. She is active on Find A Grave, where she is known as AngelSeeker. She is also a contributor to American Cemetery, an independent trade magazine for cemeterians. American Cemetery is a product of Kates-Boylston Publications.