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VOL. 38 | NO. 35 | Friday, August 29, 2014

A more earth-friendly burial option now available

By Hollie Deese

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In an eco-friendly burial, simple, biodegradable baskets or shrouds takes the place of wooden or metal caskets and the concrete vaults that cover them in traditional cemeteries.

-- Submitted Photographs Courtesy Of John Christian Phifer

When Dara Ashworth’s father died this spring after battling metastatic melanoma, she and her two sisters struggled with the best way to honor his life, his memory and his body.

Their father, Leonard Daniel Hamby, 64, a lab technician with the Tennessee Department of Health, didn’t have a specific plan, but the family knew enough about his wishes and knew that he didn’t want a traditional burial.

“We had not talked about death in our family, but my dad openly talked about how he felt about different things,” Ashworth says. “He didn’t have a burial plan but would say, ‘When I die I don’t want to be stuck in a box,’ or ‘Why fill me with toxins to take up space in the ground?’”

So Ashworth began researching other options, ramping up her search when Hamby was brought home for hospice care. Cremation was a consideration, but her father was eco-conscious and had expressed concern about the effect cremation has on the environment, both the fuel used and the toxins his body would release into the atmosphere.

Ashworth’s research led her to John Christian Phifer of Life By Life Sustainable Funeral Care in Nashville. Phifer, 36, had walked away from the traditional funeral business after 15 years in order to offer something different.

“I felt people’s needs weren’t being met,” he says. “I felt like people were being rushed through the experience and being offered run-of-the-mill funerals, paying too much for too little.”

Phifer’s alternative services cost $2,000-$4,000, compared to an average cost of $8,343 for a traditional funeral, which does not include cemetery costs.

Connected to the land

“We were always very connected to nature and connected to the source, this great big thing we are all a part of,” says Phifer, who was raised on a small farm in a very rural part of West Tennessee.

“I started at a very young age paying close attention to things when they died, or when they were sick, whether it was a calf we were raising or a stillbirth or a grasshopper I came across in the yard. It was all very important to me, and it all seemed to be in line with what I was supposed to do.”

With Life By Life, Phifer offers personalized home-based funeral guidance and natural burial support. He will visit with people at the time of a loved one’s death to have a conversation about what will happen, working hand in hand with social workers and chaplains and hospital personal to achieve a family’s true wishes.

“We are not a funeral home,” he says. “We don’t embalm and we forgo hazardous chemicals for eco-friendly treatments that do not leech into the eco system and do not harm water quality or the practitioner themselves.

“As a former embalmer, I can speak to all these things. And I have much respect for the traditional side and how things are done, but I feel now is the time for evolution in the industry.”

Phifer is in the process of trying to secure a land easement in Nashville for a burial ground, Larkspur Conservation, for the purpose of performing natural burials free of embalmed bodies, concrete vaults and expensive caskets made of precious metals or hardwoods. Instead, biodegradable baskets and organic shrouds would be used.

“If you can imagine going into Radnor Lake State Natural Area and walking around, that is exactly what the conservation cemetery would look like,” he explains. “No plastic flowers, no traditional grave markers. No concrete pathways that go through to drive up to the grave. It will be very much a natural preserve to protect the natural species and flora and fauna and hold at bay any invasive species or plants.”

How it used to be

While many people might consider sustainable burials a new trend, it is actually much more like what our ancestors did 150 years ago. A non-embalmed body is buried in a shroud or basket in a shallow grave, about 3-4 feet, where the microbial content in the ground is higher and can absorb the remains back into the soil more quickly.

Native stone from the property could act as a simple grave marker, although a GPS tracking device would pinpoint the location of each grave space.

“This is not something new; this is something very traditional,” Phifer says. “It is more of a return or revival of traditional burying practices. And it really and truly becomes a place where people can go to reconnect with a loved one.

“A lot of people want to go to a place to say goodbye, and it becomes a sanctuary, a preserve, and a place to connect to nature as well as the memory of your loved one.”

Phifer hopes to secure land in the next few years, but for now helps people like Ashworth connect with other conservation burial grounds.

“We have people from all walks of life and all faith-based communities who reach out to us,” he adds. “In general, the people who do reach out to us are a little more eco-minded. They want to do something a bit better for the environment. They recycle, shop at the farmers’ market over box stores and are religious, non-religious, spiritual. It’s interesting the mix of people.

“My dad thinks it’s a bunch of hippies, but it is everyday people who want a different, rich, fulfilled experience rather than a cookie-cutter service.”

Final resting place

Phifer helped Ashworth and her family decide on burying their father at Ramsey Creek Conservation Preserve in Westminster, South Carolina, run by Billy and Kimberly Campbell. It’s about a six-hour drive from Nashville, and he helped her coordinate transporting the body.

“I drove my dad in the back of a van,” Ashworth says, keeping the body on dry ice for the journey. “I know it sounds kind of creepy to some people, but knowing that my dad had already gone through radiation and had gone through chemo, I couldn’t bear the thought of turning his body over to be prepared to be embalmed.

“My dad drove us everywhere. Even as an adult when he would come to visit he would want to take me to work, saying ‘I’ll pick you up after and we’ll hang out,’” she adds. “It was an honor to be able to drive him.”

Once they were at the site in the Smoky Mountains, Hamby was placed in wicker basket filled with native flowers. He was given a bluebird-themed blanket Ashworth had given him earlier, then wrapped in a quilt his mother had made.

“When he was sick, that was his blanket,” she says. “My brother-in-law pulled the cart, and my sisters, myself, my mom, and Kimberly [the Ramsey Creek owner], and my other sister’s fiancé with my nephew, assisted in holding the basket, and we carried him to his site.

“It just felt like we were in the right place, and we were treated more like we were loved ones and extended family. It was just a really connected and beautiful experience.”

Green goodbyes

Amy Cunningham, a Brooklyn-based funeral director who blogs about green burials and funeral traditions, says there are now 16 green cemeteries in New York.

“You feel like you are connecting to history and nature in a way that is unusual,” she says. “Even though people are sad about the loss they almost skip out of the cemetery because they are so elated by how beautiful it was. You are given a lot of time at the grave, and you can shovel the soil as a family, so it is like going back in time.”

Whatever people choose, Cunningham says it is all about paying tribute to the person who has died.

“Burial is like so many other things in life and death, very personal to the individuals experiencing it,” Ashworth says. “The green burial, in my opinion, is just a small token of your gratitude ­– an offering, if you will – to the Earth for the wonderful life lived by so many of the Earth’s resources and also a way to contribute to continued life in a protected environment since so much of what fills our days exists in nature.”

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