Tennessee 'Natural' Burial Ground Will Offer A Simpler Farewell — Casket Optional Larkspur Conservation features trails, picnic tables, a meadow — and, soon, "natural" burial plots. The founders hope the space will offer a more meaningful and less expensive way to say goodbye.

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

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Larkspur Conservation in Sumner County, Tenn., is a beautiful park-like setting with hiking trails and picnic areas and, soon, occasional burial plots. It's part of a new partnership with the Nature Conservancy, offering families a greener and cheaper way to lay to rest their loved ones on protected land. Amy Eskind reports.

AMY ESKIND, BYLINE: The all-inclusive cost will be $3,700 for a burial on these 112 acres of serene rolling hills. Executive director John Christian Phifer gives a tour, explaining that this will never be a cemetery covered in gravestones.


JOHN CHRISTIAN PHIFER: People that choose to be buried in this type of area are the people that want wildflowers blooming on their graves and butterflies fluttering about.

ESKIND: We walk through the meadow and reach the woods.

PHIFER: So for those people that want to be buried where there are trees present and to have a tree planted on their grave, they would be buried in the woodland area.

ESKIND: After 15 years in the funeral industry, Phifer felt frustrated that families were having a hard time paying for pricey burials that felt empty. So he rode trains across the country for months, talking to people to find out how they would prefer to handle death. The same themes kept coming up.

PHIFER: Choice, flexibility, simplicity, celebration. They are looking for meaning in these rituals. They don't want to just spend $10,000 to $15,000 to $20,000 on something that has no value to them.

ESKIND: He returned to Nashville and was quickly hired by the nonprofit planning the new conservation burial ground. The first thing to go - embalming. It uses formaldehyde and chemicals to slow the process of decomposition. Phifer says the practice is unnatural and harms the environment. And there's more. I give Phifer a list of the typical expenses at a modern funeral and ask whether Larkspur's burial will have them.

Makeup and clothes?

PHIFER: Only if you choose.

ESKIND: Casket?

PHIFER: Only if you choose.

ESKIND: Vault to go around the casket?

PHIFER: Absolutely not. It's prohibited.

ESKIND: Headstone?

PHIFER: Only a native stone from our property.

ESKIND: Hearse?


ESKIND: Phifer believes giving up these costly add-ons leaves room for a more personal experience. But being wrapped in a shroud and buried in a shallow grave may not be appealing to everyone, says Roy Hamley. He's a retired death and dying professor at Lipscomb University in Nashville.

ROY HAMLEY: 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.

ESKIND: But Hamley thinks natural burial will catch on.

HAMLEY: For a lot of people, this body is not what's going to be eternal. Our spirit, obviously, is 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.

KELLYE JOINER: It is a foreign concept to people, which seems odd, really, (laughter) because this is such a natural way to do it.

ESKIND: That's Kellye Joiner. Months ago, her dying mother's wish was for a burial that wouldn't put toxins into the environment. Her mother's cremated remains will be one of the first buried here. She also asked Kellye to plant a native tree right on top of her.

JOINER: We could hug the tree. And it was like she was hugging us back.

ESKIND: When it opens in late spring, Larkspur Conservation will be open to people of all faiths and nonbelievers. It will be a place where the land will be preserved, but the bodies will go back to dust. For NPR News, I'm Amy Eskind in Nashville.


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