[Episcopal News Service] When John Christian Phifer 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 coordinate. “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,” Phifer, now executive director of Larkspur Conservation at Taylor Hollow, told Episcopal News Service. Attendees 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 preserve 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 American burials, while also seeking to reconnect with the circular nature of life and death in the natural world. When 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. Both Larkspur and Campo de Estrellas conservation cemeteries have strong Episcopal ties, and Episcopalian Mallory McDuff’s book “Our Last Best Act,” an exploration of earth-friendly options for human bodies after death, was published in December. Phifer, McDuff and others hope that their work and choices will encourage more people to choose burial practices that, with enough momentum, could help curb the climate crisis while changing burial rituals in the United States.
Of the roughly three million Americans who die each year, more than half are cremated with heat and more than a third opt for traditional burial, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. 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 forever. Approximately 5% of all burials in the U.S. are “green,” meaning without preserving chemicals or cement vaults, and instead, place natural bodies directly into the earth in biodegradable caskets or shrouds.
Conservation cemeteries, natural burial grounds located on protected land, are particularly land-oriented. Conservation burial “is natural burial that uses conservation as a tool to further protect and restore the landscape,” Phifer explained. Such cemeteries preserve open space, nurturing a return to the land’s original state. Many, Larkspur among them, partner 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 Rev. Becca Stevens, chaplain at St. Augustine’s Episcopal Chapel at Vanderbilt University, saw slaves’ “beautiful and tragic” graves in the woods, the vision that became Larkspur was born. Moreover, Stevens believes that burial shouldn’t be expensive—her father died when she was a child and her mother arranged for a simple burial within 48 hours, following the adage “We don’t bury money,” recalled Stevens, who serves as the chair of Larkspur’s board.
Before Larkspur’s ownership, the land was used for hunting and farming and hosted high-density power lines. Now, the wildflowers are returning and the water quality is better, as the land returns to its native state in a process known as “rewilding,” Phifer said.
Rewilding is also underway 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. After Cindy read the book “Wilding,” she and her son Michael decided to somehow return the land to nature. They “almost jokingly” considered starting a cemetery, Michael said. When they met Sarah Wambold, a licensed funeral director who had left the mainstream funeral industry, the idea was no longer a joke. 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. Wambold and Ybarras successfully changed that plan thanks to the creation care grant they received from The Episcopal Church in 2020. Michael and Cindy are both Episcopalians and Cindy is a member of St. Hildegard’s Community in Austin. The community’s priest, Judith Liro, helped apply for the grant on behalf of Campo de Estrellas.
The money has allowed the co-founders to teach people throughout the United States about green burial practices via online workshops. “The grant came at the perfect time,” Cindy said. The trio considers 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,” Wambold said. No funerals have taken place at Campo de Estrellas yet, but eight people have indicated that when the time comes, they want to be buried at the conservation cemetery.
Although few Americans choose natural burial, more than half of those surveyed by the National Funeral Directors Association expressed interest in green funerals. Founded in 2005 to demystify the options, the nonprofit Green Burial Council sets best practices for practitioners and answers consumer questions. Curiosity first peaked about five years ago, Green Burial Council President Edward Bixby said, adding that the pandemic has prompted more inquiries. Covid-19 “has made society reflect on their mortality,” he said. Most people who choose green burial for themselves are cremation converts, he said: “They didn’t realize that an option like this existed,” but it aligns with their values and desire for a more affordable burial.
It also aligns with the Episcopal faith, as confirmed by the 2018 General Convention’s approval of a resolution that calls for model policies for sustainable use on church lands. The resolution allows for Episcopal entities to collaborate with partners on various sustainable practices, including green burial. The Facebook group Episcopal Natural Burial is a forum for earth-friendly burial practices. And McDuff, for one, hopes more Episcopal 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 centers 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.”
McDuff’s father envisioned a simple, natural burial. And when he died, McDuff experienced a green burial firsthand for the first time. Years later, a conference at her church, The Cathedral of All Souls in Asheville, North Carolina, launched her yearlong exploration of sustainable post-mortem options, resulting in “Our Last Best Act.” In it, McDuff, a professor of environmental education at Warren Wilson College, investigates body farming, aquamation, body composting and green burial. McDuff learned about a cemetery on the Asheville college’s campus, and successfully petitioned them to drop their concrete vault requirement.
“Things can shift around death and dying,” McDuff said. “But it takes awareness, it takes people acting on awareness, it takes conversation.” Funeral homes aren’t legally required when a person dies, she added, while the Green Burial Council’s Bixby noted that green burial is legal in all fifty states.
McDuff considers green burial practices 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,’” said McDuff, a lifelong Episcopalian. 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,” she said, adding that human composting and other choices also fit with Episcopal beliefs.
For Liro, green burial supports the church’s creation care mission. News of Tutu’s aquamation signaled that people’s choices for their bodies after death is “part of our commitment to justice,” she said. “It’s not just an ethereal spirituality…and the afterlife, but it’s very connected to what happens here.” Michael 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 Bixby and Larkspur’s Phifer experience growing interest in their field, the impact isn’t only the environmental. “It’s about climate, but it’s also about communities,” McDuff said. The up-closeness of green burials transports people to the other side of the metaphorical velvet rope 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 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 onto 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,” 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.”
– Heather Beasley Doyle is a freelance journalist, writer and editor based in Massachusetts.