“There’s really just nothing like digging the grave of a stranger,” said David Ponoroff, Assistant Director at Larkspur Conservation, a natural burial ground. Larkspur, run by Ponoroff and his colleague, John Christian Phifer, opened for burials in 2018, making it the first conservation burial ground in Tennessee.
‘Natural’ or ‘green’ burials require that a body be buried four feet deep, in a biodegradable shroud or casket, which allows the body to decompose and become part of the earth within about two years. While rapidly increasing in popularity, this process isn’t a new way to take care of the dead.
In the United States, home funerals and what are now called natural or green burials, were the norm until the Civil War. It was not uncommon for families and friends to look after all elements of a burial, from cleaning the body to holding vigil in their front parlors, then interring the body in a local graveyard without the need for sturdy caskets or grand vaults.
These traditions were disrupted in the United States when the Civil War created a need for embalming, in order that the bodies of Northern soldiers could be transported back home from Southern battlefields. Embalming rapidly became a profitable and professionally-licensed field. As the Industrial Revolution transformed both working and private lives and beliefs, the death industry was not left behind. An ever-growing number of funeral directors, undertakers, crematorium technicians, florists, celebrants and more all came to find that there was money to be made in death.
Phifer, who spent the first 15 years of his career as a conventional funeral director, said this industrialization of deathcare has added dangers not only to the environment, but also to the health of funeral workers, and the mental health of those dealing with loss. The chemicals used to preserve both bodies and cemetery grounds can be toxic to embalmers, funeral directors, and cemetery workers. In 2015, the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry found that those working jobs that exposed them to formaldehyde were three times more likely than peers to develop ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), an incurable disease that targets the nervous system causing progressive muscle weakening.
With an old school embalming tool sat next to him when we spoke via Zoom, Phifer said that it isn’t just these physical dangers that persuaded him to pursue a career in green burials. He’s also deeply concerned about the waste of the funeral industry, such as the production of caskets and vaults that are not biodegradable. In 2012, the Berkeley Planning Journal reported that, annually, conventional United States burials use 30 million feet of hardwood, 2,700 tons of copper and bronze, 104,272 tons of steel, and 1,636,000 tons of reinforced concrete.
Another concern made Phifer want to leave the conventional funeral industry: again and again, he watched families and friends grieving in settings where they were not involved in the burial of their loved one. Phifer is convinced that grief can be easier to process when there is more physical and emotional involvement in the actual burial process. “The grave is hidden; there are plastic chairs; there is fake grass. Those are all things that we’re placing between ourselves and death. In this setting we can’t then deal with the fact of losing our loved one.”
At the Larkspur Conservation – named for the spring ephemeral wildflower that grows there – families and friends often arrive early on the burial day to take a memorial hike (or drive, for those with mobility constraints) to the grave site, which will already be dug and the bottom beautifully decorated by Phifer and Ponoroff with seasonal flowers and leaves.
“We want people to come up and see something that is pretty and soft and aesthetically pleasing, because it makes it easier to engage with what’s happening,” Ponoroff said. Sometimes, above the grave, photos of the deceased are hung, catching the breeze. Families can bring religious or spiritual leaders with them to provide a more structured service, or they can simply tell stories and reflect on the life of their loved one. The body is then lowered into the grave with ropes held by ceremony attendees, then the grave is filled in, sometimes with the help of Ponoroff and Phifer. “There are days where we do a lot, and there are days when we’re not allowed to touch the shovels,” Ponoroff said.
Since 2018, Phifer and Ponoroff have buried around 66 bodies and have seen demand grow for their services. In 2019, The National Funeral Director Association listed the average cost of an adult funeral with viewing and burial at $9,135 dollars. Ponoroff estimated that in Tennessee the average is closer to $12,000 dollars. Burial at Larkspur, which includes a ceremony that can last up to three hours, costs around $4,000 dollars.
In a society where green burial is not yet the norm, finding people who want to be buried at Larkspur hasn’t always been easy. Phifer and Ponoroff said the biggest challenge they face is getting access to and being able to educate local communities on exactly what green burial is, and why they think it’s a smarter choice.
Barbara Haynes, who buried her mother, Lois Catanzaro, at Larkspur in June 2020, didn’t need any convincing. Alone in hospital, Catanzaro died as a result of COVID-19, while listening to a recording of Haynes singing her favorite hymn, Great is Thy Faithfulness. Although Catanzaro did not expressly choose Larkspur for her burial, Haynes knew it was what the family needed after not being able to be with Catanzaro as she passed.
“Larkspur gave us the chance to serve her and care for her a final time,” Haynes said. Haynes’ husband and children took part in the burial with her brother, his family, and a photographer friend. The ceremony was anything but formal, Haynes said, as family members all took part in lowering Catanzaro’s body, and then filling in the grave. Since then, Haynes has returned twice, including a visit when she planted native trees and bushes around the gravesite.
Haynes said this process has helped with her grief, and that it made her feel closer to her mother. Haynes and her husband both plan on being buried at Larkspur and, after hearing their story of burying Catanzaro, two of their close friends plan to be buried at the conservation as well.
Haynes said, “This will be a different kind of memorial. Here, the experience of death and burial becomes a part of life.”