Funerals can be elaborate and costly, but there's a movement toward simplicity.
This spring, a nonprofit in Sumner County is opening a "green" burial space: 112 acres of bucolic farmland, about 50 miles northeast of Nashville.
Rather than a plot of land crammed with tombstones and monuments and speckled with plastic flowers, Larkspur Conservation will be a different kind of cemetery — a park setting with picnic areas and hiking trails, a nature preserve with occasional burial plots marked by simple native stones, if at all.
"People (that) choose to be buried in this type of area are the people who want wildflowers blooming on their grave and butterflies fluttering about," executive director John Christian Phifer said as he walked through a meadow.
Or they could be buried in the woods: "It’s really an expansive place, and quiet and beautiful."
Phifer had spent 15 years in the funeral industry before quitting, feeling frustrated that families were having a hard time paying for pricey burials and then weren’t satisfied in the end. He went on a months-long odyssey riding trains across the country, talking to everyday people to find out how America would prefer to handle death. The same themes kept coming up.
"Choice. Flexibility. Simplicity. Celebration. They wanted something fun. They wanted something happy," he said. "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 to help plan 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 calls the practice unnatural and says it harms the environment
Caskets are optional. Vaults around the caskets are prohibited. So are headstones, beyond a native stone from the property. Makeup and clothes on the body are optional. And it's not religious-specific, Phifer says: "Anyone’s welcome. All faiths, and believers and non-believers."
Will It Catch On?
The idea for Larkspur originally came from Becca Stevens, a Nashville reverend who had long been bothered by the high cost and pomp at funerals. It was a simple slave burial ground in Percy Warner Park that made her realize there could be another way.
Stevens knew that Jewish and Islamic traditions were more natural, and in all the years she has officiated at funerals, she remembered the simple ones at private cemeteries as the most healing.
"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 said. "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, said certified grief counselor Dr. Roy Hamley, a retired death and dying professor at Lipscomb University.
"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 this may catch on because burials 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'
Earlier this year, Kellye Joiner talked to her mother as she lay dying. Her mother's wish was for a natural burial that wouldn’t put toxins into the environment. She also asked that a native tree, one that "needed a comeback," be planted on top of her.
"My first thought was, I’m going to have to drive to Oregon," she said.
Then she found Larkspur. Her mother’s cremated remains will be one of the first to be buried there. The tree selected will be one from outside the cave that was Mark Twain’s inspiration for Huckleberry Finn, in accordance with her mom's love of books.
"We could hug the tree and it was like she was hugging us back," Joiner said.
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’s healthy today at 72, McKeehan-Bounds has planned a natural burial for herself. She has specified that a Tennessee Yellowwood tree will 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 said.
The idea of Larkspur was so appealing to Josephine Darwin, 62, that she's giving up a family tradition: She’s 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."