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The death care profession is more than just dealing with dead bodies, and we want to educate you about all the different career options you have in this field.

For the latest instalment of our ongoing series, Careers in Death Care: A Day in the Life, we caught up with John Christian Phifer to talk about what a green cemetery director does and how his work helps people control their death plans and helps conserve the land.

John Christian Phifer has spearheaded the creation of Tennessee’s first nature preserve for natural burial. Phifer is a licensed funeral director and embalmer, certified end-of-life doula, funeral celebrant, and home funeral guide. He currently serves as the Executive Director of Larkspur Conservation and President of The Conservation Burial Alliance. Through Larkspur Conservation, he works to educate and empower the public by bridging environmental advocacy and end-of-life care.


Careers in Death Care: A Day in the Life Series

Careers in Death Care – Your Career Options
A Day in the Life of a Gravestone Conservator

A Day in the Life of a Death Doula

A Day in the Life of an Embalmer
A Day in the Life of a Forensic Artist
A Day in the Life of a Funeral Director
A Day in the Life of a Funeral Celebrant
A Day in the Life of a Green Cemetery Director
A Day in the Life of a Hospice Physician

A Day in the Life of a Pathologist


Careers in Death Care: A Day in the Life of A Green Cemetery Director

Tell us about yourself and what brought you to become a green cemetery director at Larkspur?

I joke that mother nature was my babysitter, but she really was. I grew up on a farm in Tennessee with two brothers.  We spent our days outside exploring and getting in tune with nature and the cycles of life. From the young age of 5, 6, or 7, I had created a little cemetery in the woods where we would play. I buried all sorts of little beings that had met their end. From grasshoppers wrapped and shrouded in maple leaves to squirrels hit on the roadway, to my beloved parakeet Billy. Something about caring for these helpless creatures resonated with me. I told my folks in 7th grade that I wanted to be a mortician (I also wanted to be a botanist and park ranger—many of the things I find myself doing today).




They chuckled and likely thought I would be an astronomer or any number of interesting vocations in the weeks and years ahead, but this work stuck with me. It was after high school and the death of my grandfather that I heeded the calling and began studying at a mortuary college in Nashville, TN. Not to boast, but I went on a full ride from the Tennessee Funeral Directors Association. I hadn’t really won anything based on merit until this moment, and I was floored. Everything seemed to fall into place. Like the universe knew that this was my path and the doors opened.

I spent 15 years in the conventional funeral industry. I have done everything from famous televised funerals to private burials. I remain a licensed funeral director and embalmer.

What inspired you to become a green cemetery director?

It was at the peak of my time managing a large funeral home in Nashville when I came to the realization that there had to be more ways we could help folks. There had to be an element of evolution in our practices as funeral directors and cemetery operators (our funeral home was a “combo” and sat on an 150-acre historic cemetery). As a whole, the industry hadn’t changed much. We were still offering the same things in the same ways. Video tributes, woven blankets, and faux oil paintings weren’t evolution or change, they were just the industry’s attempt to keep up with the times. I had proposed a couple of ideas to the owners about how we might evolve by creating a natural burial section in our existing cemetery (a hybrid model), but it was only met with “Ehh neat idea,” or, “Sure, kid, you go ahead.” So I did.

 I came away inspired to create a new end-of-life model. One that would give people license to actively participate in death and create their own ritual. 

I made a leap of faith and left my management position with my head held high, and started dreaming. I took a train across the country from Memphis to Chicago to Minneapolis to Seattle to San Francisco to Los Angeles, where the flu sent me home on a plane. (I had planned on continuing across the south). But I made this epic trip to shed some of the dogmatic training I had received from the industry. I talked with everyone whose ear I could capture about their thoughts on funerals and cremation and burial and what they loved, hated, were confused by, and what they wanted for themselves.

Following my trip, I wanted to be the best example of a funeral person I could be. I trained as a home funeral guide with Jerrigrace Lyons at Final Passages, as an end-of-life doula with Tarron Estes at the Conscious Dying Institute, and as a funeral celebrant at the Insight Institute. I came away inspired to create a new end-of-life model. One that would give people license to actively participate in death and create their own ritual. A model that would allow folks to care for their dead while combating funeral poverty. An end-of-life model that would create an open community green space that is protected forever and whose ecology is managed to foster growth and new life. Today that model is Larkspur Conservation.

What is the biggest misconception about your work at Larkspur?

The usual suspects are misconceptions about embalming, vaults, funeral rules, and laws. (No, water quality is not damaged and animals will not dig up your body.) The biggest unknown is that people can take ownership of their death practices and rituals and that (most) funeral directors actually support the idea of home funerals and green/natural or conservation burial.

How does Larkspur differ from other green cemeteries?

Larkspur is a nonprofit organization. Our mission is to preserve and restore land across Tennessee while offering natural burial practices that heal the earth and offer sanctuary. We have protected our property with a conservation easement held by The Nature Conservancy. We currently steward 284 acres on two distinct properties and have a third 443-acre property in the pipeline for protection.

Our focus is ecological, not monetary. We have also developed a program that provides burial assistance to marginalized communities and reinforces equity while combating injustices in end-of-life care. Larkspur is a place where people can come to get some healing in their grief and give some healing to the land in the form of restorative burial.

Run us through a typical day as a cemetery director at Larkspur.

Oh wow. Each day is different. Today I am at my desk on the computer answering emails and such. Tomorrow I will be at the preserve checking the wildlife cam. Another day, I may place an engraved natural stone on a grave, or source seed for native plantings and visit with neighbors and hikers on the preserve. Often, I spend time leading a planning session with someone who wants to create a natural burial plan for themselves. A great deal of time is spent demystifying death culture in America and giving the planner permission to create their end-of-life ritual or process. We meet with school groups to hike and learn about ecology and death. And of course, we have burials where we coordinate a memorial hike and ceremony in the preserve with a family.




Each burial with a family lasts about 3 hours from start to finish. I also spend a great deal of time teaching funeral directors the forgotten ways of natural burial. I introduce them to green funeral products and show them how to shroud or casket an unembalmed body for burial.

What was one of the hardest days you encountered at Larkspur?

When I went before my neighbors, planning and zoning board, and the full 26 member county commission to seek approval to create our first burial preserve. That was nerve-racking, but it paid off, and we gained unanimous approval to create Tennessee’s first nature preserve for natural burial.

 Nature is real and wild, and it is to be cherished, but that was a harsh reminder that she is also to be respected. 

Infant and youth burials are always sad times. It’s difficult to see lives cut short, and little woven caskets and words seem to fail in those moments. Oh, and one time, a widow and her lab mix were visiting her husband’s grave when a rattlesnake bit their dog “Lady”. We acted quickly and got her to an emergency vet with antivenom, and (thankfully) Lady is still with us today. Nature is real and wild, and it is to be cherished, but that was a harsh reminder that she is also to be respected.

What was one of the most memorable days you’ve had?

The burial of a dear woman who just 3 months earlier had her best day with me, riding the 4×4 UTV across the ridges, valleys, and meadows of the preserve.  She had driven up from Florida with her husband. She was terminal with lung cancer and had to use oxygen constantly. We looked at birds, ate persimmons, created a plan, and she thanked me for creating a place like this for her.

She said she never thought it would be possible to die on her own terms, and she probably wouldn’t be here at Christmas. She was right. We buried her two days before the holiday at the site she selected.

How can someone interested in opening a green conservation cemetery start the process?

Currently, the best resources are The Green Burial Council and The Conservation Burial Alliance along with consultants Memorial Ecosystems, and Landmatters.

Larkspur currently doesn’t offer consultation services, but we are happy to give you a few minutes of our time and answer any questions you may have, and point you in the right direction.

What type of education or training do you need to become a green cemetery director?

The more training and study, the better. Having a background in the funeral industry is a major plus, followed by biological and earth science training and knowledge. I am a naturalist that learns something new about nature and myself every day.

What advice would you give to someone starting out the process of opening a green conservation cemetery, or interested in becoming a cemetery director at a conservation cemetery?

This work isn’t for the faint of heart.  You must be committed because the act of burial is a forever move. Once you start, you cannot stop caring for the family and the land. Also, you can’t do it alone. You have to assemble a team that will support you along with a legacy plan in the event the company or nonprofit changes over time. As an occupation, you must think empathetically of the dying, the family, and of nature. The three must work in tandem.


Careers in Death Care: A Day in the Life Series

Careers in Death Care – Your Career Options
A Day in the Life of a Gravestone Conservator

A Day in the Life of a Death Doula

A Day in the Life of an Embalmer
A Day in the Life of a Forensic Artist
A Day in the Life of a Funeral Director
A Day in the Life of a Funeral Celebrant
A Day in the Life of a Green Cemetery Director
A Day in the Life of a Hospice Physician

A Day in the Life of a Pathologist


Do you currently work in the end-of-life industry? Would you like to be featured in a future Careers in Death Care: A Day in the Life article? Please contact us with your job title and tell us about your experience in the industry!

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