WASHBURN, Tenn. (WVLT/Gray News) - An east Tennessee burial preserve goes back to the basics by offering a “simpler, more natural” way of burying the dead -- no casket, no embalming and no cost.
In 2007, Bill Nickle, the founder of Narrow Ridge Center, a nonprofit organization established to teach sustainability, set aside five acres of land in Washburn for a natural burial preserve.
Five years later, Tennessee established Narrow Ridge as a community cemetery, and it has operated as such ever since. It's not like most cemeteries out there. It's a "green" cemetery, which its operators say means people buried there can't be embalmed or placed in a casket.
"When people died, they had home funerals and buried them within 26-36 hours and in a natural way," Bill Nickle told WVLT. "There was no embalming. There was no metal casket, no concrete vaults, and that was the way it was."
A report states the average funeral in the U.S. costs between $7,000 and $12,000, as expenses for caskets, burial plots and funeral services become more exorbitant. Some have turned to cremation, as 44 percent of Americans say they plan on going that route.
"There comes a point where we all kind of go, 'Wait a minute, does it have to be this way? Why does it have to be so complicated?'" Narrow Ridge director Mitzi Wood-Von Mizener said.
That's not the case at Narrow Ridge. Family and friends can dig a grave by hand and close it after their loved ones are buried for free. If they would like help, Narrow Ridge says it connects the family with a contractor who will dig and close the grave for $250. Narrow Ridge said the money is paid directly to the contractor, and the organization receives no funds. While the plot is free, Narrow Ridge encourages those who can to make a donation to their mission.
The preserve takes a more simplistic view of death and dying. With no casket required, a thin covering separates those interred at Narrow Ridge from the dirt.
"At the simplest level," Mitzi said, "we've had a couple of people wrapped in a sheet, and then we've had shrouds, which would be a more ceremonial covering."
Those at Narrow Ridge said their process is a more healing way to grieve. "Putting it into the grave and actually putting soil on the body if you so choose, all of that is part of the grieving process," Nickle said. "It's a lot more healing, I think, than being totally isolated from the death of a loved one."
Narrow Ridge operators said the commercialized process of death and the disconnect that Americans feel with the idea prompted them to offer a more bare-bones way to handle it. Bill Nickle said the concept isn't new.
"This is the way we've done it for thousands of years. Can we not continue to do that?"
Only about four percent of Americans plan on having a natural burial like what’s offered by Narrow Ridge, but as Americans become more eco-conscious, Narrow Ridge said that could change.
Last year, Forbes reported that 77 percent of people globally want to live more sustainably, including 40 percent of millennials and 43 percent of Generation X.
That drive is prompting more people to turn to natural burial, or at least opening their eyes to the possibilities.
“Consumers of funeral services are now going to conventional cemeteries and are saying, ‘yeah, I need your services. I don’t want to pull off a funeral all on my own, but can we do it without embalming, and can I choose a biodegradable casket?’” Mitzi said. “Many people don’t know they have another option, and they find meaning in being buried in a way that doesn’t negatively impact the planet.”
Natural burial, she said, can be a way to honor the earth and the cycles of life and death.