Peaceful conservation burials benefit the planet—a final gift from loved ones
A shrouded body (below) awaits natural burial at Tennessee’s Larkspur Conservation cemetery. In one ceremony, a family placed their loved one in a wicker basket and covered it with flowers (above left) before filling the grave themselves. (Photos by John Christian Phifer/Larkspur Conservation)
JUST BEFORE BOBBY DOWNES' MOTHER, Kristina, died in March of 2022, she was in hospice in Tennessee, on a heavy dose of morphine. She couldn’t speak. “That was the last I really saw of her,” Downes says. “She slept for three days. And then we lost her.”
But that wasn’t his last memory of his mother. After she died, “an angel showed up in hospice,” says Downes. “She was a social worker. We talked for two hours. She listened to everything I had to say about my mom’s life. Then she asked, ‘Have you ever heard of Larkspur?’”
He hadn’t. Larkspur Conservation is a protected natural area near Nashville, Tennessee, where families can bury their loved ones directly into the ground without the use of toxic embalming fluid, concrete vaults, pricey coffins, cremation or other environmentally harmful processes and materials used in conventional burials. Larkspur offers sites in either a meadow or forest setting, and graves are marked with stones from the area and a GPS location so families can find their way to the grave as they stroll along natural pathways.
Kristina Downes’ burial site is nestled amongst streams and wildflowers frequented by butterflies. Downes remembers his first visit to Larkspur, just after his mother’s death. John Christian Phifer, Larkspur’s executive director, took him out to choose a site. Downes recalls that Phifer told him, “Pay attention to what speaks to you. You just let me know.” While in the woods, a butterfly flew between them. “It was as if my mom was saying, ‘This is it. You got it.’”
Larkspur is one of only about 20 conservation burial sites in the United States, which offer burials on land protected by a recognized conservation land trust. Staff use sustainable cemetery-management practices while restoring and protecting the ecological integrity of the land through actions such as removing invasive plants and planting native trees. But there are other “green” options in what Phifer refers to as the “death positive” movement.
According to the New Hampshire Funeral Resources and Education group, there are more than 350 U.S. and Canadian sites offering some form of natural or hybrid burial that relies to some extent on sustainable practices to conserve energy and minimize waste. Many don’t allow the use of toxic chemicals, a vault, markers made of nonnative stone or burial containers not made from natural materials. So-called hybrid sites are conventional cemeteries that offer the basics of natural burial, usually in a set-aside area.
Natural burial is legal in every state and appears to be increasingly popular. “We do know that the availability of natural burial has grown significantly since 1998,” says Lee Webster, former president of the Green Burial Council International. And interest in learning more about green burial has increased from 55 percent of respondents last year to just over 60 percent this year, according to a survey conducted by the National Funeral Directors Association.
At Larkspur, 170 people have been buried since it opened in 2018, and several hundred more have purchased sites. Phifer attributes the increase in interest to generational changes. “The baby boomers are in their golden years and are beginning to make end-of-life decisions,” he says. “They challenged old systems and have not done what their parents had done.” In addition, he says, Gens Y and Z, who are caring for their boomer parents, “are concerned about climate change” and “have a more eco-friendly lifestyle.”
Cost also may be a factor. According to a 2021 study by the National Funeral Directors Association, the average cost of a casket burial in the United States is $7,848, with cremation averaging $6,970. The additional cost for a burial plot varies widely by location and can top $10,000. For their burial at Larkspur, the Downes family paid $6,130 total.
Beyond cost, advocates of green burial emphasize its environmental advantages. According to statistics published online by the Green Burial Council, each year in the United States, conventional funerals and burials use 20 million board feet of hardwoods, 64,500 tons of steel, 1.6 million tons of concrete for burial vaults and 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid, including formaldehyde, a carcinogen that can leach into soil. Cremation may be more eco-friendly than conventional burial processes. However, cremated ashes can be toxic to plant roots and soil microbes. The process releases some 139 to 250 pounds of carbon dioxide per person, and it burns fossil fuels to reach and maintain a temperature of 1,900 degrees F for two hours or more.
Conversely, green burials involve only rapidly biodegradable materials such as cloth shrouds or willow baskets, and there is often no mowing, fertilizing or watering the natural landscape. Beyond these ecological benefits, Webster notes the psychological advantages of conservation burial sites. “They aren’t just warehouses for the dead,” she says. “We’re talking about community building. It’s a deliberate strategy for increasing access for more people to nature and to be there with meaning.”
As attitudes toward burial shift, other more eco-friendly options are also evolving. Body composting, for example, accelerates decomposition by putting the body into a vessel with wood chips, alfalfa and straw. After about six weeks, the corpse is transformed into soil that can be given to the family or to a conservation group to use as compost. To date, this process is legal in only six states: California, Colorado, New York, Oregon, Vermont and Washington.
Another method, alkaline hydrolysis, uses a water and alkali solution and heat to break down chemical bonds that hold a body’s proteins together. The only solid remains are bones, which are pulverized and returned to families. It’s legal in about 26 states. Yet with both of these options, says Webster, families still must “find a place to put what’s left over.”
Some people choose to have a hybrid experience involving a home wake, where the body is naturally cared for and kept cool while available for viewing, followed by a conservation burial. Jeffrey Rich chose this option for his husband, Jeffrey Martin Wright, who died suddenly in 2018.
“Jeff was connected to nature,” says Rich. “He used to say, ‘I just want to be food for a tree.” So Rich contacted Caroline Yongue, founder and director of the Carolina Memorial Sanctuary, a conservation cemetery in Mills River, North Carolina. Yongue helped Rich develop a hybrid farewell.
Because Wright’s death was sudden, the body needed to go the medical examiner’s office to determine cause of death: heart arrhythmia. Back home, Rich put the body in a guest room, and loved ones had three days to pay their respects. With a home experience like this, says Rich, “you have time to let go very slowly. We washed him and packed his body with dry ice twice a day. All of these physical things normalize the death process. It is strangely very healing.”
Yongue says families appreciate that at cemeteries like Carolina Memorial, the family is directing the process. “It helps people deal with their grief. It helps them get over their fear of death. Even children like to participate by laying flowers. It’s not this mystery: ‘Where is Grandma?’”
Beyond preparing a body at home for burial, some families choose to bury their loved ones in a family cemetery on their own land, particularly in rural areas. “There are still significant amounts of burials on private land, and no state prohibits that,” says Tanya Marsh, a professor at Wake Forest University School of Law in North Carolina and an expert on burial law. States and localities may have land use restrictions and regulate certain kinds of cemeteries, however, so Marsh advises families to first check with authorities before planning a home burial.
The practice of “natural” burial has always been a cornerstone of Indigenous cultures. Though customs vary widely, “most burial practices are very, very spiritual ceremonies,” says Michael Black Wolf, a member of the Aaniiihnen Nation and the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer of the Fort Belknap Indian Community in Montana.
Traditionally, he says, Tribes of the northern plains would dress departed loved ones in their finest clothing, wrap them in a buffalo robe and place the body on a rock outcropping or tree scaffold within an area revered as a burial ground. Tribes would often travel with the seasons, returning much later to the burial ground to recover their loved one’s remains for burial. “In our world view,” he says, “we are just part of nature. As painful as it is to lose a loved one, it’s just part of life. So letting nature take its course is nothing to be feared.”
Though Indigenous cultural traditions have evolved along with technology and regulations imposed on the disposition of bodies, funeral customs remain sacred, as do the remains of ancestors. To honor those ancestors, Black Wolf is part of the large and growing movement to repatriate disturbed or looted Indigenous burial objects and remains, a complex but vital step toward addressing egregious wrongs.
For families of any culture, knowing that a loved one rests in peace brings untold comfort. For Bobby Downes, Larkspur offers a place of peace for his mother, where he and his family can visit the grave and see how the nature that surrounds it changes with the seasons. Downes still grieves when he thinks of the beauty of the burial day last spring. At the time, he wrote a letter to his mother’s siblings, saying: “We often think of death as something to be repelled or resisted. But it is just a transition, a part of this experience we are all having. And I can’t think of another, better way to celebrate that transition than what we experienced yesterday. It was glorious.”
For a list of green burial cemeteries in the U.S. and Canada, visit nhfuneral.org.
Writer Kathy Jesse is based in Maryland.
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