How natural burial can conserve land in Middle Tennessee
Written by Holly Meyer for The Tennessean and USA Today
Leaves crunched under John Christian Phifer’s boots one evening in early October as he hiked on 155 acres of largely untouched land, pointing out natural markers and speaking in earnest about what its future could hold.
It’s where Phifer plans to be buried, cradled by Mother Nature alongside the dogwood trees, ironweed and larkspurs.
“I want my body to be able to go toward creating something special that will live on long past me,” he said. “I want to use my body as a tool to save land.”
If all falls into place, the Sumner County property bordering Taylor Hollow State Natural Area will become Tennessee’s first conservation cemetery, and the final resting place for anyone who wants a natural burial void of embalming chemicals, metal caskets and concrete vaults. Phifer, a Nashville-based home funeral guide and end-of-life doula, is leading the effort with the Rev. Becca Stevens, a Nashville Episcopal priest and founder of the social enterprise Thistle Farms.
A mutual desire to provide environmentally mindful and socially responsible burial options to the region brought them together. In 2013, they formed a nonprofit, Larkspur Conservation, to usher in their plans to conserve land through natural burial.
The idea of creating a space for active participation in end-of-life rituals unencumbered by the artificial isn’t much of a stretch for Stevens, the nonprofit’s board president. She grew up in a family that believes simple, inexpensive funerals are faithful and loving send-offs. Stevens’ father, who was a priest, died when she was five years old after being hit by a drunk driver on his way home from church. In keeping with her father’s wishes, the family buried his unaltered body in a plain pine box.
“I think the more that we remove ourselves from the actual natural process, the scarier it gets because it feels like you become an alien to your own land,” Stevens said. “For me at least, the idea of this is the land, and this is a part of me and this is how I return to dust, feels very comforting.”
But finding suitable property proved to be a big hurdle for the nonprofit until they found the tract of land in Sumner County about an hour northeast of Nashville. The property’s neighbor is the 163-acre Taylor Hollow preserve owned by The Nature Conservancy in Tennessee, which is a big plus for Larkspur Conservation’s mission to preserve land. Now, the nonprofit has until the end of January 2017 to buy the property. About half of the $300,000 needed has been raised as of mid-October.
“We will increase the conservation corridor in Sumner County by quite a bit,” said Phifer, the executive director of Larkspur Conservation.
And it won’t just be for the dead. In addition to a living memorial, the nonprofit intends for the property to serve as a park and an educational facility by allowing the public to use the trails it plans to maintain, welcoming students to study its natural ecosystems and raising awareness about the work they do, Phifer said.
“It will truly be a unique place unlike any other cemetery in the state,” Phifer said.
Once Larkspur Conservation secures the property, the next steps will be readying the land for burial, including mapping the property and determining the best sites. GPS location technology, natural markers and other documentation will be used to keep track of graves since everything placed in the cemetery will be biodegradable. Larkspur Conservation wants its services to be a more affordable option than those offered by conventional providers. Phifer anticipates that gravesites could cost around $3,800. The national median cost of a funeral including viewing, burial and vault was $8,508 in 2014, the National Funeral Directors Association says.
The first burial at Larkspur Conservation could happen as early as next year.
Conservation cemeteries are rare with less than ten existing in the United States, said Kate Kalanick, executive director of the Green Burial Council. It’s one of three types of burial grounds the California-based environmental certification organization evaluates; the others are natural and hybrid burial grounds. Unlike the other categories, conservation burial grounds must further legitimate land conservation, according to the council’s standards.
The Green Burial Council has certified more than 300 funeral homes, cemeteries and product manufacturers. All kinds of natural burial options can be found across the country, including in traditional cemeteries that allow burials without vaults in specific sections. Natural burial practices predate modern ones, and certain religious traditions, like Islam and Judaism, don’t permit embalming and require quick burial.
“We definitely see more established cemeteries putting in natural burial areas because there can be a lot of d tape with starting a cemetery from scratch,” Kalanick said. “But we have seen a definite uptick in conservation burial grounds being created or in the process of being created.”
But overall, green burials only make up a “very small percentage” of the funeral industry, said Edward Bixby, the Green Burial Council’s board president. But it’s growing.
Bixby, who owns Steelmantown Cemetery, a natural burial ground in New Jersey, has seen sales almost consistently double year over year. Other providers shared a similar story in the council’s January 2015 survey. More than 70 percent of respondents said demand for green burial has increased since they began offering it.
“It’s really starting to catch fire. The funeral industry itself is starting to see this as a viable option to recapture the lost cremation sales and that’s a good thing,” Bixby said. “The cremation customer really has an affinity to what we do. A lot of the people that chose cremation chose it because they didn’t really agree with conventional burial practices and we fall more in line with no embalming, no vaults.”
The demand for natural burial options in Nashville is very real for Stevens and Phifer. Four boxes in St. Augustine’s Episcopal Chapel at Vanderbilt University hold the cremains of those who wanted to be buried in a natural cemetery, said Stevens, who serves as the chapel’s priest. They’re waiting to be laid to rest at Larkspur Conservation when it opens, she said.
“For some people if you have an old cemetery on your farm, you can be buried naturally. If you’re lucky enough to be a part of the Jewish cemetery that allows natural burial, you can be buried there. But for the vast majority of folks that is not an option,” Stevens said. “Anointing a body, putting it in a simple box or shroud, laying it in the ground, is not an option for most of us.”
Many of Phifer’s clients want natural burial, and families are willing to travel out of state to fulfill their loved ones wishes. Phifer, who is a licensed funeral director and embalmer, worked for 15 years in the conventional funeral industry in Nashville. He left after his ideas to offer more environmentally friendly options were met with resistance. But he’s noticed the influence of society’s changing attitudes.
“Mindfulness is something that is really sneaking back into society. It’s a hot topic as well. People are being more mindful, getting more involved in organic food and how to live healthier lives. Be more aware and present in the current moment,” Phifer said. “I think that’s where you see this shift in what we’re doing as well why so many people are embracing it.”
A more earth-friendly burial option now available
by Hollie Deese for The Nashville Ledger
When Dara Ashworth’s father died this spring after battling metastatic melanoma, she and her two sisters struggled with the best way to honor his life, his memory and his body.
Their father, Leonard Daniel Hamby, 64, a lab technician with the Tennessee Department of Health, didn’t have a specific plan, but the family knew enough about his wishes and knew that he didn’t want a traditional burial.
“We had not talked about death in our family, but my dad openly talked about how he felt about different things,” Ashworth says. “He didn’t have a burial plan but would say, ‘When I die I don’t want to be stuck in a box,’ or ‘Why fill me with toxins to take up space in the ground?’”
So Ashworth began researching other options, ramping up her search when Hamby was brought home for hospice care. Cremation was a consideration, but her father was eco-conscious and had expressed concern about the effect cremation has on the environment, both the fuel used and the toxins his body would release into the atmosphere.
Ashworth’s research led her to John Christian Phifer of Life By Life Sustainable Funeral Care in Nashville. Phifer, 36, had walked away from the traditional funeral business after 15 years in order to offer something different.
“I felt people’s needs weren’t being met,” he says. “I felt like people were being rushed through the experience and being offered run-of-the-mill funerals, paying too much for too little.”
Phifer’s alternative services cost $2,000-$4,000, compared to an average cost of $8,343 for a traditional funeral, which does not include cemetery costs.
Connected to the land
“We were always very connected to nature and connected to the source, this great big thing we are all a part of,” says Phifer, who was raised on a small farm in a very rural part of West Tennessee.
“I started at a very young age paying close attention to things when they died, or when they were sick, whether it was a calf we were raising or a stillbirth or a grasshopper I came across in the yard. It was all very important to me, and it all seemed to be in line with what I was supposed to do.”
With Life By Life, Phifer offers personalized home-based funeral guidance and natural burial support. He will visit with people at the time of a loved one’s death to have a conversation about what will happen, working hand in hand with social workers and chaplains and hospital personal to achieve a family’s true wishes.
“We are not a funeral home,” he says. “We don’t embalm and we forgo hazardous chemicals for eco-friendly treatments that do not leech into the eco system and do not harm water quality or the practitioner themselves.
“As a former embalmer, I can speak to all these things. And I have much respect for the traditional side and how things are done, but I feel now is the time for evolution in the industry.”
Phifer is in the process of trying to secure a land easement in Nashville for a burial ground, Larkspur Conservation, for the purpose of performing natural burials free of embalmed bodies, concrete vaults and expensive caskets made of precious metals or hardwoods. Instead, biodegradable baskets and organic shrouds would be used.
“If you can imagine going into Radnor Lake State Natural Area and walking around, that is exactly what the conservation cemetery would look like,” he explains. “No plastic flowers, no traditional grave markers. No concrete pathways that go through to drive up to the grave. It will be very much a natural preserve to protect the natural species and flora and fauna and hold at bay any invasive species or plants.”
How it used to be
While many people might consider sustainable burials a new trend, it is actually much more like what our ancestors did 150 years ago. A non-embalmed body is buried in a shroud or basket in a shallow grave, about 3-4 feet, where the microbial content in the ground is higher and can absorb the remains back into the soil more quickly.
Native stone from the property could act as a simple grave marker, although a GPS tracking device would pinpoint the location of each grave space.
“This is not something new; this is something very traditional,” Phifer says. “It is more of a return or revival of traditional burying practices. And it really and truly becomes a place where people can go to reconnect with a loved one.
“A lot of people want to go to a place to say goodbye, and it becomes a sanctuary, a preserve, and a place to connect to nature as well as the memory of your loved one.”
Phifer hopes to secure land in the next few years, but for now helps people like Ashworth connect with other conservation burial grounds.
“We have people from all walks of life and all faith-based communities who reach out to us,” he adds. “In general, the people who do reach out to us are a little more eco-minded. They want to do something a bit better for the environment. They recycle, shop at the farmers’ market over box stores and are religious, non-religious, spiritual. It’s interesting the mix of people.
“My dad thinks it’s a bunch of hippies, but it is everyday people who want a different, rich, fulfilled experience rather than a cookie-cutter service.”
Final resting place
Phifer helped Ashworth and her family decide on burying their father at Ramsey Creek Conservation Preserve in Westminster, South Carolina, run by Billy and Kimberly Campbell. It’s about a six-hour drive from Nashville, and he helped her coordinate transporting the body.
“I drove my dad in the back of a van,” Ashworth says, keeping the body on dry ice for the journey. “I know it sounds kind of creepy to some people, but knowing that my dad had already gone through radiation and had gone through chemo, I couldn’t bear the thought of turning his body over to be prepared to be embalmed.
“My dad drove us everywhere. Even as an adult when he would come to visit he would want to take me to work, saying ‘I’ll pick you up after and we’ll hang out,’” she adds. “It was an honor to be able to drive him.”
Once they were at the site in the Smoky Mountains, Hamby was placed in wicker basket filled with native flowers. He was given a bluebird-themed blanket Ashworth had given him earlier, then wrapped in a quilt his mother had made.
“When he was sick, that was his blanket,” she says. “My brother-in-law pulled the cart, and my sisters, myself, my mom, and Kimberly [the Ramsey Creek owner], and my other sister’s fiancé with my nephew, assisted in holding the basket, and we carried him to his site.
“It just felt like we were in the right place, and we were treated more like we were loved ones and extended family. It was just a really connected and beautiful experience.”
Amy Cunningham, a Brooklyn-based funeral director who blogs about green burials and funeral traditions, says there are now 16 green cemeteries in New York.
“You feel like you are connecting to history and nature in a way that is unusual,” she says. “Even though people are sad about the loss they almost skip out of the cemetery because they are so elated by how beautiful it was. You are given a lot of time at the grave, and you can shovel the soil as a family, so it is like going back in time.”
Whatever people choose, Cunningham says it is all about paying tribute to the person who has died.
“Burial is like so many other things in life and death, very personal to the individuals experiencing it,” Ashworth says. “The green burial, in my opinion, is just a small token of your gratitude – an offering, if you will – to the Earth for the wonderful life lived by so many of the Earth’s resources and also a way to contribute to continued life in a protected environment since so much of what fills our days exists in nature.”