Group brings green burial concept to Tennessee

Monday, June 5, 2017

By HOLLY MEYER

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A Nashville nonprofit is bringing a new cemetery concept to Tennessee.

Larkspur Conservation’s plan to create the state’s first conservation burial ground cleared a major hurdle Monday night when the Sumner County Commission unanimously approved the cemetery. It will be located on 100 acres of largely untouched property in the county about 45 miles northeast of Nashville.

“Sumner County led the way on this particular call. They have opened the options for end-of-life care to the community in Sumner County and around the region,” said John Christian Phifer, the nonprofit’s executive director and an end-of-life doula.

The burial ground will provide a final resting place for anyone who wants to be buried without embalming chemicals, metal caskets and concrete vaults. At the same time, the cemetery will preserve the land, furthering Sumner County’s conservation corridor as it borders the 163-acre Taylor Hollow State Natural Area owned by The Nature Conservancy in Tennessee.

“I think people want to commit one final act — whether that’s in their life or after their life — that can leave a positive impact not only on their community, but on their environment and create a legacy,” Phifer said.

The search for a green graveyard

The conservation burial ground has been years in the making. The Rev. Becca Stevens, the chaplain of St. Augustine’s at Vanderbilt University and the founder of the social enterprise Thistle Farms, is Larkspur Conservation’s board chairperson. She and Phifer helped create the nonprofit in 2013, and he and other board members have been searching for the perfect piece of property in Middle Tennessee ever since.

They were connected with Karen Knox, who lives in East Nashville and is one of the heirs of the Sumner County property. The future home of the burial ground is a part of 155 acres her late father, Dr. Russell Ward, bought after his retirement from medicine in 1980s, Knox said. He was a strong supporter of The Nature Conservancy’s mission.

“Whenever property became available that bordered The Nature Conservancy or was sort of close to it — if he could afford it, he bought it,” Knox said. “It is absolutely a match made in heaven. I know that both of my parents would have been just tickled pink.”

Plans for the cemetery spent the last couple of months winding their way through county government because it required both a zoning change and the county commission’s approval. During that time, Phifer said he and other Larkspur Conservation representatives fielded a number of questions and concerns about the project. He went into Monday night’s meeting unsure about the outcome, but was elated with the commission’s unanimous approval.

“It’s not gone that way in Massachusetts and a lot of other places. There’s been a lot of hang up, and people freak out when you say you’re going to bury somebody without a casket and you’re going to bury somebody without embalming,” Phifer said.

Site could be ready next year

A number of boxes at St. Augustine’s Chapel hold the cremains of those waiting to be laid to rest at the conservation burial ground. The site could be ready for burial by spring 2018, Phifer said.

While the cemetery has cleared its county government hurdles, Larkspur Conservation has several steps it still needs to wrap up, including closing on the property and drafting the conservation easement with The Nature Conservancy. The property needs to be mapped since the graves will be tracked through GPS location technology, natural markers and other documentation.

They’ll be reaching out to donors who made pledges, and fundraising efforts will continue, including to purchase the additional 55 acres owned by the Ward family, Phifer said. Larkspur Conservation will continue to work with other natural burial grounds to learn from their experiences, and the nonprofit is working with the Green Burial Council, too.

Larkspur Conservation wants to become a model for future conservation burial grounds, Phifer said.