Caskets are optional at Larkspur Conservation in Sumner County.

By Meghan Overdeep
March 16, 2018
Southern Living Larkspur Conservation Natural Burial
Credit: Larkspur Conservation

Set on 112 acres of serene rolling hills in Sumner County, Tennessee, Larkspur Conservation at Taylor Hollow isn't your average cemetery.

There are no rows of tombstones, no soaring monuments, and no cut flowers. The burial ground at Larkspur Conservation is for natural burials only. Here, caskets, makeup and clothing are optional, and hearses are futile. Bodies are laid in shallow— 3.5 to 4 feet deep—graves and left to decompose safely and naturally in the rich soil, free of harmful embalming chemicals.

The nonprofit, set to open this spring, is the brainchild of John Christian Phifer and Becca Stevens. Phifer, who serves as the project's executive director, grew up with "Mother Nature as his babysitter" on a farm in West Tennessee. After 15 years working as a funeral director, he quit to pursue a more mindful approach to handling death.

The hope for Larkspur, Tennessee's first conservation burial ground, is that it will provide families with a more peaceful and environmentally friendly place to lay their loved ones to rest. "People [who] choose to be buried in this area are the people who want wildflowers blooming on their grave and butterflies fluttering about," Phifer told NPR.

Stevens, an Episcopal priest and social entrepreneur in Nashville, who came up with the idea for Larkspur, told NPR she had long been bothered by the high cost of funerals.

"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 says. "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.'"

NPR spoke with 62-year-old Josephine Darwin, a ninth-generation Nashvillian, who has decided to be buried at Larkspur instead of the same small cemetery as the rest of her family.

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"When my ancestors first were buried in the cemetery in Nashville, it was wild and peaceful," she told NPR. "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."

All it took was one visit to Larkspur to convince her that it 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," Darwin added.