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GUEST COLUMN: Natural Burial and The End-of-Life Doula

Updated: Oct 6, 2022

By John Christian Phifer

While visiting a local bookstore, I picked up a children’s book that spoke in simple terms about our relationship with death and dying. It got me to thinking about how childlike we are as a society in regards to the great mystery of death.

Each of us must nurture our own thoughts and feelings about death and allow them to grow into understanding.  My extensive death education and just being with the dead and dying has afforded me some perspective but not even I have death figured out. Like in the storybook, viewing death as a natural occurrence like birth, spring, summer, fall and winter can allow us a window to peer through. As we ponder death it actually becomes less scary and more familiar.

Once, families grew their own food, school and church were a walk away and birth along with death happened firsthand in the family home. In post-war America our nation became industrialized and slowly sterilized.  Astroturf and tv dinners replaced grass between the toes and vegetables from the garden. Birth was moved to the hospital by “modern” medicine and death was also shifted from the “living room” and outsourced to the funeral “home.”  This disconnect has complicated our relationship with life…and death. Once familiar, now foreign.

Two historic end-of-life options have resurfaced with a mindful twist that might just help us get our heads around death and live more meaningful lives.

First, natural burial is the practice of burying our loved ones without the use of contaminating materials such as embalming chemicals, metals, plastics, and concrete. In Tennessee, there is now a nature preserve creating space for natural burial. Unlike a contemporary cemetery, Larkspur Conservation resembles your favorite park for hiking, bird watching and mindful recreation…a living memorial. Its landscape breaks down the walls we have created separating ourselves from death in our natural lives.

Second, end-of-life doulas serve as non-medical support persons that help clarify, organize, and make known end-of-life wishes and requests. Their companionship can assist the dying and their family to mend and reinforce relationships so that one might leave this world whole.

Death doesn’t have to be The Big Bad Wolf and with a little childlike curiosity we might just be okay in the end.

John Christian Phifer is the Executive Director for the nonprofit Larkspur Conservation, a funeral celebrant, end-of-life doula, home funeral guide and a licensed funeral director and embalmer. For more information, call (615) 854-1000 or visit


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