No casket, no cost: Tennesseans go back to 'natural' burial

People dig a grave at the Narrow Ridge Preserve / Source: WVLT
People dig a grave at the Narrow Ridge Preserve / Source: WVLT(WVLT)
Published: Feb. 19, 2020 at 9:57 PM EST
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An East Tennessee burial preserve goes back to the basics offering a "simpler, more natural" way of burying the dead--no casket, no embalming and no cost.

In 2007, Bill Nickle, the founder of

, a nonprofit established to teach sustainability, set aside five acres of land in Washburn, Tennessee, for a natural burial preserve.

Five years later, the state 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 News

. "There was no embalming. There was no metal casket, no concrete vaults, and that was the way it was."


between $7,000 and $12,000, as expenses for caskets, burial plots and funeral services become more exorbitant. Some have turned to cremation, with 44 percent of Americans saying they plan on going that route.

Narrow Ridge Director Mitzi Wood-Von Mizener said, "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?""

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 they connect 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 they receive 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." Others laid to rest in a coffin made from local or reclaimed wood.

Those at Narrow Ridge say their process is a more healing way to grieve. "Putting it into the grave," Bill said, "and actually putting soil on the body if you so choose, all of that is part of the grieving process, and it's a lot more healing, I think, than being totally isolated from the death of a loved one."

Death is an uncomfortable, though inevitable, topic for Americans. In a 2013 article for

The Atlantic

, Paul Bisceglio cited author Lawrence Samuel, who

"turned death into this 'horrible little secret we have...because death is oppositional to our culture's defining values, like youth, progress, and achievement'."

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?"

Right now, only

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,


globally want to live more sustainably, including 40 percent of Millennials and 43 percent of Gen X.

That drive is prompting more people to turn to natural burial, or at least opening their eyes to the possibilities. Mitzi said, "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?'"

With that in mind, 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.

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