One of the few natural burial sites in Tennessee offers families the opportunity to honor their loved one through nature conservation, contributing to the land and its resources as a living memorial.
Larkspur Conservation, a natural burial ground and nature preserve, is a 155-acre protected green space dedicated to natural burial practices and conservation in Westmoreland.
More:How natural burial can conserve land in Middle Tennessee
“Every one of our gravesites becomes an active site of restoration, so whether the person chooses to be buried in the meadow or in the woodland, they have an opportunity to join with Larkspur in restoring the site where the grave is opened and closed, and that means restoration of native plant species into that ecosystem on that gravesite, so trees that will grow from the grave or flowers and grasses that will grow from the grave that help benefit native species, pollinators and just a plethora of different reasons and ways that this person or the people that are buried there get to live on,” Larkspur Conservation Executive Director John Christian Phifer said.
To date, about 145 burials have occurred on the property.
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Though no two burials are the same, each one works to restore the land, contributing green space, clean air and clean water for the community.
“It’s been a really beautiful, transformational experience for our families because it’s a place where families come together and it’s unlike any burial ceremony that they have ever experienced. It’s kind of like relearning or reimagining end of life and what it has to look like,” Phifer said.
“It’s a safe place where people can come together. They’re enveloped in nature. It’s a calming experience. There’s a memorial hike and walk into the nature preserve. People dress casually, we tell stories, music is played … It’s a place of participation. It’s not a place of observation … That’s why we say at Larkspur, ‘we’re able to heal hearts, but we’re also able to heal the landscape at the same time with the work that we do.’”
More: Larkspur Conservation bringing green burial concept to Tennessee
One experience that sticks with Phifer, to this day, is a family who lost their father to dementia much earlier in life than anyone had expected.
“(They said), ‘We took him home to die, but we took him to Larkspur to live’,” he said. “It’s really hard to put into words what happens at Larkspur, and with these burial ceremonies that we create, but it’s just really amazing and beautiful.”
Nearly a decade in the making
After spending about 15 years in the funeral industry as a licensed funeral director and embalmer, Phifer joined with Thistle Farms Founder and President Becca Stevens in 2013 to create the organization that would become Larkspur Conservation, a dream they both shared.
“(It was) kismet that the universe put us together,” Phifer said.
Others soon jumped on board, and four years later, the organization successfully obtained a family-owned property next to Taylor Hollow, a 163-acre state natural area located about 45 miles northeast of Nashville.
One of the last undisturbed remnants of Middle Tennessee’s forest system, Taylor Hollow was among the first nature preserves purchased by The Nature Conservancy in Tennessee, a global environmental nonprofit working to conserve land and water.
“(The family) had owned the property for several years. The father had died, and they were settling his estate. During that time, they were looking for a way to protect the land that he loved so much,” Phifer said, noting the family was looking for an alternative to selling the land, which they feared would be harvested for timber, subdivided or worse.
“And when they learned about what we were doing as a nonprofit organization, they thought it was wonderful, and they thought that their father would like it, too, and it would honor his memory.”
Prior to purchasing the property, Larkspur sought and gained approval from the Sumner County Commission to change the land’s zoning from residential agricultural to public use green space and met with neighbors concerned about the land’s possible impact on the community.
“We met with all of the necessary key players in the community, from county commissioners to mayors to neighbors and the family that we were purchasing the land from. I think that they see the value now,” Phifer said.
A year later, the nature preserve opened, with a conservation easement intended to forever protect the land.
Open to the public
Since it’s beginning in 2018, Larkspur has been to the public for hiking and mindful recreation.
“We have neighbors that come for exercise, people bring their children during school breaks and we even have some outdoor education. We have families that bring their home-schooled children … We have schools, like Ensworth, that just sent 45 freshmen out to help with service opportunities, to learn about nature and ecology,” Phifer said.
Along with opportunities for physical activity, the property also acts as a way for students and others to explore their mortality.
“Our landscape is very unique in the sense that it’s a place that’s protected for its ecology and its natural landscape, but it’s also loved and cherished because people are buried there, and it becomes a very sacred place, possibly more so than any other type of nature park,” Phifer said.
So, what exactly is conservation burial? Built on the foundation of natural burial practices, conservation burial goes one step further by conserving the land used for burial. Conservation burial ensures that burials do not harm the surrounding ecosystems and facilitate ecological restoration.
“What Larkspur does is a way to responsibly take care of our own bodies when we die but at the same time ensure that there’s land and trees and an ecosystem and healthy air and clean water for generations to come,” Phifer said.
“As our society grows with our transient nature and the population is growing, we’re losing, and you know well in Nashville, how much land space is being used in ways that’s never been used before, we’re losing a lot of our natural habitat and our buffers for our clean air and clean water, and it’s really important to save land.”
Uncommon and unknown
Though natural burial has been practiced for centuries, it’s uncommon and unknown to many today — something Phifer hopes to correct with Larkspur.
“I think that people always initially think this is something that’s weird, but this is not, this is something that’s been done as long as man has been on the planet. It’s something that is natural in the sense of it’s a natural burial, yes, but its natural just to care for your dead this way. This is the way it’s been done forever,” Phifer said.
So, what does natural burial look like? No embalming, metals, plastics or concretes are used in natural burials.
“Families still generally use a funeral home for simple transportation, filing of the death certificate and providing something for the body to be wrapped in or placed in, like a wicker basket or a simple pine coffin, something that will completely go back into the environment,” Phifer said.
Though other green burial practices have begun to crop up around the country, like composting, there’s not much available beyond a traditional funeral or cremation.
At Larkspur, the goal is to provide everyone with the opportunity to experience and heal in their grief through natural burial by sharing the model and mission with other communities.
“Larkspur has become kind of a beacon, if you will, for sharing the how’s and why’s of conservation and natural burial with people across the country,” Phifer said, noting his current position as president of the Conservation Burial Alliance, a collaborative of conservation burial grounds and allies fostering the conservation and sustainable management of land with natural burial.
“We work to engage with other communities to provide them the resources that they need to find conservation or natural burial in their areas, but also to help other communities create this type of offering for themselves and make it work in their home,” he said.
To learn more about Larkspur Conservation, visit larkspurconservation.org.
Katie Nixon can be reached at [email protected] or (615) 517-1285.