Tennessee nonprofit offering natural burial free of chemicals, plastics, other materials

Posted at 12:31 PM, Jan 30, 2020

There are a lot of decisions to make when honoring the life of a loved one. A natural burial is one option.

One of the spaces available for natural burials lies in the hills of northern Tennessee.

“There’s one thing everyone on this planet has in common: we’re all going to die,” John Christian Phifer, executive director of Larkspur Conservation, said. “We are one of about 10 organizations in the United States that are serving their communities through conservation burial.”

Larkspur Conservation is a nonprofit natural preserve for natural burial, the first of its kind in Tennessee. That means no chemicals, concretes, plastics, or paints are allowed in the ground.

“We want to have as light a footprint on the natural landscape as possible,” Phifer said. “I left the convention funeral industry to create a more mindful path for families who are experiencing loss.”

Phifer showed us around the 112-acre preserve, which is complete with trails, wooden benches and maps.

“When I was a kid, I had a little burial ground in the woods where I would bury grasshoppers using a fork from my mother’s kitchen drawer," he said. "And I swear, it’s come full circle for me and here I am.”

Since he opened Larkspur to the public in 2018, 34 people have been laid to rest here, including Viki Johnson.

“They all helped lower her into the grave and helped close the grave,” Phifer said on the day of her funeral.

“I prefer to call it return to mother earth,” Peyton Johnson, Viki Johnson’s husband, said.

Peyton and his wife visited Larkspur from their home in Florida back in 2018, just months before Viki died of cancer.

“We stood there, and that was it. We knew that was where we were going to be,” Peyton said. “I can look at a cloud and see Viki in a cloud. I can go to Larkspur and see her in the birds.”

The idea of returning to earth naturally isn’t new.

“Natural burial is not a new thing, we’ve been burying people naturally for thousands of years,” Randy Nash, president of the Tennessee Funeral Directors Association, said. He also works at Crestview, a funeral home near Larkspur.

“There’s definitely a lot more discussion about natural burial, green burial, anything green,” Nash explained.

The Green Burial Council shared these stats from Cornell University and Greensprings Natural Preserve in New York. Burials in the United States use approximately 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid, 1.6 million tons of concrete, 17,000 tons of copper and bronze, and 64,500 tons of steel.

One survey conducted by the National Funeral Director Association in 2017 showed 53.8 percent of people say they are interested in a “green burial."

“It’s cost effective, it’s beautiful, it’s simple,” Phifer said.

On average, the cost of a funeral with a viewing and a burial is $7,360, according to the National Funeral Directors Association in 2016. Costs depend on the type of casket chosen, or whether or not the person is cremated.

“We priced our offering at one flat fee which is $3,700 dollars,” Phifer explained.

But to Phifer and the families that choose Larkspur, it’s not about the money. It’s about honoring those who pass away.

“We wanted to be part of the earth,” Peyton Johnson said.

“I’ve encountered so many beautiful people through this journey,” Phifer said.

“Make sure you do something to honor that person that passed away make sure to celebrate their life in some type of way,” Nash said.