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Natural burials in the US: Green plot in a green shade

28 October 2022

Members of the Episcopal Church in the United States are exploring a final act of care for creation, Heather Beasley Doyle reports

Larkspur Conservation

The burial experience at Larkspur Conservation is meant to create personal spiritual rituals, while also seeking to preserve land and reduce carbon emissions

The burial experience at Larkspur Conservation is meant to create personal spiritual rituals, while also seeking to preserve land and reduce carbon em...

WHEN John Christian Phifer, executive director of Larkspur Conservation at Taylor Hollow, in Nashville, talks about his work at Tennessee’s first conservation cemetery, he first provides context by describing the mainstream funerals familiar to many Americans, which he used to co-ordinate.

“You walk into a large fancy room, and there’s a casket, and people are all dressed in formal clothing, and you feel this kind of velvet rope between you and everything else that’s happening, and you don’t know what to do, you don’t know how to feel.” Those attending feel more like observers to a quiet process, he said, whereas “the exact opposite of that happens at Larkspur.”

At Larkspur’s 112 acres, families and friends hike into a nature reserve to bury their loved ones without durable caskets or cement vaults; the experience is meant to create deeply personal spiritual rituals, while also seeking to preserve land and reduce carbon emissions.

Episcopalians are helping to shape the future of funeral practices, as people increasingly consider the economic and environmental costs of typical burials in the United States, while also seeking to reconnect with the circularity of life and death in the natural world.

Both Larkspur and another conservation cemetery, Campo de Estrellas, in Smithville, Texas, have strong Episcopal ties, and a book by an Episcopalian, Dr Mallory McDuff, Our Last Best Act: Planning for the end of our lives to protect the people and places we love (Broadleaf Books) — an exploration of earth-friendly options for human bodies after death — was published last December.

When the retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu died late last year, his choice of alkaline hydrolysis, or “aquamation” — a flameless, water-based alternative to cremation, with a lower environmental impact — became news.

Mr Phifer, Dr McDuff, and others hope that their work and choices will encourage more people to choose burial practices that, with enough momentum, could help to curb the climate crisis while changing burial rituals in the US.


OF THE roughly three million Americans who die each year, more than half are cremated, and more than one third opt for traditional burial, according to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA). Cremation emits carbon dioxide, while traditional burials include embalming bodies with formaldehyde and other chemicals that inhibit decomposition, preparing burial sites with concrete vaults, and producing caskets meant to last for ever.

Approximately five per cent of all burials in the US are “green”, meaning without the use of preserving chemicals or cement vaults; instead, bodies are placed directly into the earth in biodegradable caskets or shrouds.

Conservation cemeteries, natural burial grounds located on protected land, are particularly land-orientated. Conservation burial “is natural burial that uses conservation as a tool to further protect and restore the landscape”, Mr Phifer explained. Such cemeteries preserve open space, nurturing a return to the land’s original state. Many, Larkspur among them, form partnerships with conservation groups such as the Nature Conservancy, to protect the land in perpetuity.

Larkspur Conservation is one of 12 certified conservation cemeteries in the country. More than 100 burials have taken place there since its 2018 opening. Larkspur began with a hike in the woods. When the Revd Becca Stevens, chaplain of St Augustine’s Episcopal Chapel, at Vanderbilt University, saw the “beautiful and tragic” graves of slaves, in the woods, the vision that became Larkspur was born.

Moreover, Ms Stevens, who chairs Larkspur’s board, believes that burial should not be expensive; she recalls that, when her father died when she was a child, her mother arranged for a simple burial within 48 hours, in accordance with the adage: “We don’t bury money.”

Before Larkspur’s ownership, the land was used for hunting and farming, and hosted high-density power lines. Now, the wild flowers are returning, and the water quality is better, as the land returns to its native state in a process known as “rewilding”, Mr Phifer says.

Rewilding is also under way about an hour from Austin, Texas, at Campo de Estrellas. In 2016, Cindy Ybarra bought the 30 acres of land that have become the conservation cemetery. “I’ve been keenly aware of the environmental crisis, to the point of almost despairing; so this gives me the feeling of doing all that I can to address it,” she said.

Warren Wilson CollegeDr Mallory McDuff at the Warren Wilson Cemetery, in western North Carolina, with her book Our Last Best Act

After Ms Ybarra read the book Wilding, by Isabella Tree, about the rewilding project on the Knepp Estate, in West Sussex, she and her son Michael decided to somehow return the land to nature. They “almost jokingly” considered starting a cemetery, Mr Ybarra said. When they met Sarah Wambold, a licensed funeral director who had left the mainstream funeral industry, the idea was no longer a joke. Ms Wambold was eager to meet the Ybarras, with their land and vision.

When the pandemic began, they had finished the legal work for the cemetery, but Covid-19 ruined plans to offer in-person green-burial workshops. Ms Wambold and the Ybarras successfully changed that plan, owing to the creation-care grant that they received from the Episcopal Church in 2020. The Ybarras are both Episcopalians, and Ms Ybarra is a member of St Hildegard’s Community, in Austin. The community’s priest, the Revd Judith Liro, helped with the grant application on behalf of Campo de Estrellas.

The money has allowed the co-founders to teach people throughout the US, by means of online workshops, about green burial practices. “The grant came at the perfect time,” Ms Ybarra said. The trio consider education the most important part of their work.

“We need people to start to think about these concepts and processes prior to a death occurring, and to ask the questions and to get comfortable,” Ms Wambold said. No funerals have been held at Campo de Estrellas yet, but eight people have indicated that, when the time comes, they want to be buried in the conservation cemetery.


ATHOUGH few Americans choose natural burial, more than half of those surveyed by the NFDA expressed interest in green funerals. Founded in 2005 to demystify the options, the non-profit Green Burial Council sets out best practice for practitioners, and answers consumers’ questions.

Curiosity first peaked about five years ago, the president, Edward Bixby, said, and the pandemic had prompted more enquiries: Covid-19 “has made society reflect on their mortality”. Most people who chose green burial for themselves were cremation converts, he said. “They didn’t realise that an option like this existed,” but it aligned with their values and desire for a more affordable burial.

It also aligns with a resolution carried in 2018 by the Episcopal Church’s General Convention which calls for model policies for sustainable use of church lands. The resolution allows for Episcopalian entities to collaborate with partners on various sustainable practices, including green burial.

Larkspur ConservationJohn Christian Phifer, the executive director of Larkspur Conservation

The Facebook group Episcopal Natural Burial is a forum for earth-friendly burial practices. And Dr McDuff, for one, hopes that more Episcopal Church land will become conservation cemeteries. “One of the things the Episcopal Church has, in terms of assets, is land,” she said. “I’ve been trying to plant seeds for the possibility of camp and conference centres, where youth spend time learning about creation, learning about God, learning about relationships with others. That seems like a perfect entity to potentially host conservation burial grounds.”

Dr McDuff’s father envisaged a simple, natural burial, and, when he died, Dr McDuff experienced a green burial at first hand for the first time. Years later, at a conference at her church, the Cathedral of All Souls, Asheville, in North Carolina, she launched her year-long exploration of sustainable post-mortem options, which resulted in Our Last Best Act. In it, Dr McDuff, a professor of environmental education at Warren Wilson College, investigates body farming, aquamation, body composting, and green burial.

Dr McDuff learned about a cemetery on the Asheville college’s campus, and successfully petitioned the college to drop its concrete-vault requirement. “Things can shift around death and dying,” Dr McDuff said. “But it takes awareness; it takes people acting on awareness; it takes conversation.”

Funeral homes were not legally required when a person died, she said. Mr Bixby, of the Green Burial Council, noted that green burial was legal in all 50 states of the Union.


DR McDUFF considers green burial practices to be an extension of the Episcopal Church’s faith. “One of the lines in the liturgy that has really spoken to me over the years is, ‘We’re changed, not ended,’” Dr McDuff, a lifelong Episcopalian, said. She sees green burial as a path to earthly resurrection. “You’re putting a body into the earth without embalming, without a concrete vault, and with only biodegradable materials,” and human composting, and other choices, also fit with Episcopal beliefs, she says.

For Ms Liro, green burial supports the Church’s creation-care mission. News of ArchbishopTutu’s aquamation signalled that people’s choices for their bodies after death were, she said, “part of our commitment to justice. It’s not just an ethereal spirituality . . . and the afterlife, but it’s very connected to what happens here.”

Mr Ybarra agreed. “The environmental impact of one cemetery is significant, but probably not earth-shattering,” he said. “But if the idea, the example we’ve set, can spread, then the impact can be very large.”

As Mr Bixby and Mr Phifer experience growing interest in their field, the impact is not only environmental. “It’s about climate, but it’s also about communities,” Ms McDuff said. The up-closeness of green burials seems to transport people to the other side of the metaphorical velvet rope that Mr Phifer described; to a tactile caring for someone’s body and being outside, while burying a loved one, making and deepening connections along the way.

Memories of her father’s burial still sustain Dr McDuff: “I can see my daughter, who was six when my dad died, being held by someone. I can hear the sound of the dirt from her shovel on to my dad’s gravesite.”

“There’s not a family or a person that’s ever attended one of these services that wasn’t moved in a way that changed their entire thought process,” Mr Bixby affirmed. “And, by experiencing it that way, you’re less afraid of death. It’s really a strange thing, but it’s not all that scary. It changes your total mindset.”


This is an edited version of a story produced by the Episcopal News Service. Heather Beasley Doyle is a freelance journalist, writer, and editor, based in Massachusetts.

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