Green Burial at Narrow Ridge Natural Burial Preserve

In Cover Stories by Eleanor Scottleave a COMMENT

A timber-frame pavilion stands on a remote hill in Narrow Ridge Earth Literacy Center’s community land, overlooking Hogskin Valley. The only decoration is a bell, made from an old oxygen tank. A few feet away are gentle mounds of earth. The pavilion provides shelter for the funerals of the people buried in Narrow Ridge Natural Burial Preserve, opened in 2009.

This is one of the few natural-burial community cemeteries in contemporary Tennessee history. At Narrow Ridge, natural burial means bodies are not injected with preservatives, the body is buried in a biodegradable shroud or casket, and the earth is left as undisturbed as possible. Small horizontal grave markers made of local stone are allowed; of the five people buried there, only two have markers.

Commercial cemeteries within city limits often have covenants requiring embalming and metal or concrete caskets, but Narrow Ridge leaders found few state laws regarding burial.

“Laws [regarding burial] tend to be pretty old,” says Narrow Ridge director Mitzi Wood-Von Mizener, pointing out that until recently, all burials were natural. “It’s pretty open for natural burial preserves to be established.”

University of Tennessee law professor Becky Jacobs volunteered to help parse the legalities of establishing a natural-burial community cemetery, and the process turned out to be pretty simple in rural Grainger County. Narrow Ridge only had to apply for exemption from commercial cemetery status; Jacobs facilitated the application and the state approved the preserve in 2012 with no problems.

The average cost of a typical funeral in Tennessee is almost $8,000. Burial at Narrow Ridge is donation-based. A trusted local with the proper equipment will dig the grave for $250. It would be possible for a person with no funds to be buried for free, if their friends and family were willing to do all the work now usually left to professionals—transportation of the body, the ceremony, and the opening and closing of the grave.

The first person to be buried there was Jack Cassel, a UT professor and Narrow Ridge volunteer, who died in 2009 before the legalities of the cemetery had been worked out. Acting fast, Narrow Ridge quitclaim-deeded him a 10-foot by 10-foot plot, and buried him there on the hilltop, as per his wishes.

“It was Jack’s last act of rebellion,” Woods-Von Mizener says.

She likens the natural burial movement to the natural birth movement.

“Just as we can reclaim the rights to tending to the births of our own children,” she says, “We can do the same with the rites of caring for our dead.”

In March 2014, Rikki Hall was buried in the preserve on the hillside overlooking Hogskin Valley. Hall was an avid hiker and outdoorsman in his 50s when a brain tumor claimed his life. A biologist, activist, and writer, Hall wrote the column Sideways Glance for Metro Pulse and edited the environmental newspaper Hellbender Press. Around his small gravestone someone has planted native grasses and flowers. The day he died, Hall’s friends dug his grave by hand, and camped out nearby in sleeping bags under the stars.

Log Mountain looms over the hill, seeming very close and very far at the same time.

Eleanor Scott's Possum City explores our urban forests, gardens, and wild places, celebrating the small lives thriving there. A freelance writer and columnist, she also maintains the Parkridge Butterfly Meadow in East Knoxville.

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