NASHVILLE — 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."
Follow Holly Meyer on Twitter: @HollyAMeyer