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Tennessee 'Natural' Burial Ground Will Offer A Simpler Farewell — Casket Optional

An example of an all-natural, biodegradable casket is arranged by Larkspur Conservation's executive director, John Christian Phifer
Courtesy of John Christian Phifer
An example of an all-natural, biodegradable casket is arranged by Larkspur Conservation's executive director, John Christian Phifer

Larkspur Conservation in Sumner County, Tenn., is a beautiful, parklike setting, with hiking trails and picnic areas and, soon, occasional burial plots. The 112 acres of serene rolling hills are protected by a conservation easement through the Nature Conservancy. Larkspur's founders hope it will offer families a greener — and cheaper — way to lay their loved ones to rest in a beautiful place.

This will be a different kind of cemetery: no rows of tombstones and monuments, and no plastic flowers. The nature preserve will be used for "natural burials" only. Caskets are optional, as are makeup and clothing on the body. Vaults around the caskets are prohibited. So are headstones, beyond a native stone from the property. No need for a hearse. Graves average 3.5 to 4 feet deep — or a bit deeper for biodegradable caskets — in the microbe-rich, living layer of soil. Ceremonies may involve clergy of any faith, or none at all.

Walking through a meadow on the property, Larkspur Executive Director John Christian Phifer says, "People [who] choose to be buried in this area are the people who want wildflowers blooming on their grave and butterflies fluttering about."

Or, Phifer says, people can opt to be buried in the wooded section: "It's really an expansive place, and quiet and beautiful."

Phifer spent 15 years in the funeral industry before quitting, feeling frustrated that families were struggling to pay for pricey burials that left them feeling empty. He went on a months-long odyssey riding trains across the country, talking to people to find out how Americans would prefer to handle death.

The same themes kept coming up. "Choice. Flexibility. Simplicity. Celebration. They wanted something fun. They wanted something happy," he says. "They are looking for meaning in these rituals. They don't want to just spend 10 to 15 to 20 thousand dollars on something that has no value to them."

Phifer returned to Nashville and was hired by the nonprofit that was planning the new conservation burial ground at Larkspur. The first thing to go? Embalming, which uses formaldehyde and chemicals to slow the natural process of decomposition. Phifer, who has worked as an enbalmer, calls the practice unnatural and says it harms the environment.

The eternal part

The idea for Larkspur originally came from Becca Stevens, an Episcopal priest in Nashville who had long been bothered by the high cost and pomp at funerals.

"We need a place to bury like this, where it's your body in the ground — and all the stuff that they developed around all these false rituals that cost people money, and it feels so distant — it just felt like it needed to be simpler, more healing." she says. "We should be able to remember somebody's life and celebrate it and grieve them and do that without thinking, 'And I'm going broke.' "

But being wrapped in a shroud and buried in a shallow grave may not be appealing to everyone, says certified grief counselor Roy Hamley, a retired professor of death and dying at Lipscomb University in Nashville.

"For some people, the thought of their loved one's body not being kept dry and not destroyed, the idea is offensive to some folks, so they'll want a burial container," Hamley said.

However, he thinks natural burial may catch on because funerals have gotten so costly and because many traditions are based on family practice, not necessarily religion.

"For a lot of people, this body is not what's going to be eternal — the spirit is obviously the eternal part — and so it doesn't matter what happens to the body for most religious groups. It's what happens with the spirit," he said.

"I love the quiet"

As Kellye Joiner's mother lay dying earlier this year, her last wish was for a burial that wouldn't put toxins into the environment.

The cremated remains of Joiner's mother will be among the first to be buried at Larkspur when it opens this spring. She asked that a native tree, one that "needed a comeback," be planted on top of her.

"We could hug the tree and it was like she was hugging us back," Joiner says.

Natural burial sounded more appealing to Sharon McKeehen-Bounds, too. When her husband died in 2005, the small graveside funeral and burial cost her $13,000 and left her feeling flat. She says even her husband thought that kind of burial was "barbaric," but she didn't see another choice.

"When you're looking at the casket, behind that were these bulldozers and men with shovels waiting for it to get over so they could get that dirt on in and they could go on to the next one," she said. "There was nothing peaceful about it."

Though she is healthy today at 72, McKeehan-Bounds has planned a natural burial for herself. She has specified that a Tennessee Yellowwood tree should be planted on top of her body, and she hopes her friends will have a picnic after her burial.

"After they've put the dirt in and so forth, they could just sit there in the environment and have a picnic and enjoy the birds and the trees and the deer and maybe a fox or two, and reminisce," she says.

The idea of Larkspur was so appealing to Josephine Darwin, 62, that she is giving up a family tradition: She is a ninth-generation Nashvillian, and family members have been buried in the same small cemetery for ages. But Darwin says the site isn't what it used to be.

"When my ancestors first were buried in the cemetery in Nashville, it was wild and peaceful," she says. "But now, as Nashville has grown, their plots overlook a very, very busy road. I know that's not what they would like. It's definitely not what I want."

After one visit, she was convinced Larkspur was a better answer.

"I love the quiet, I love that it's a wildlife refuge, and I love that no one for any generation will be surrounded by concrete or fake flowers."

This story was originally reported for Nashville Public Radio.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Evie Stone is the Supervising Editor at Weekend Edition. She collaborates with show staff and newsroom colleagues to ensure that Weekend Edition covers essential news, tells human stories and occasionally makes the audience bark with laughter.
Amy Eskind