Make us your home page

Preserve's conservation cemetery offers families a 'green' end-of-life alternative

NEW PORT RICHEY — "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. "

The phrase is heard at most funerals. But with today's typical funeral and burial process, the natural process of returning to dust is impeded, while cemeteries have become "landfills" polluted with toxins from embalming fluids, steel caskets and concrete vaults.

Green burials offer a sustainable alternative, but the choices are minimal. There are only a handful of "hybrid" cemeteries in Florida that offer both natural and traditional burials, and even fewer conservation cemeteries that work toward protecting the land.

Laura Starkey is determined to change that.

Conservation has been a family tradition for Starkey, whose grandfather, J.B. Starkey, donated land that is now part of the publicly owned Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Preserve. Laura Starkey first learned about natural burial as a tool for saving land at a convention 10 years ago. But it wasn't until 2010 that she began working toward opening her own conservation cemetery.

Using a section of property that was once part of her family's historic Starkey Ranch, Starkey opened Heartwood Preserve Conservation Cemetery in October, a 41-acre nature preserve and conservation cemetery that borders the 18,000-acre Starkey Wilderness Preserve. The first burial was in November, and a grand opening celebration was held in mid January.

"This was seven years in the making, but we finally got it up and running," said Starkey, Heartwood's founder and executive director. "Keeping with the concept of conservation, it is not just green burial. We go further by allowing the natural habitat to continue to grow around it."

Heartwood is the first conservation cemetery within a nature preserve in the Tampa Bay area. It is similar to Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery in Gainesville, but, unlike Prairie Creek, Heartwood is the first and currently only natural cemetery in Florida licensed to offer pre-planning, allowing people to plan and pay in advance. At Prairie Creek and other locations, grave sites may only be purchased at the time of death.

There are only "green" burials at Heartwood Preserve, which means there are no embalming fluids, concrete-lined vaults or metal caskets allowed. A body may be wrapped in a shroud or placed in a biodegradable wood casket. Cremated remains must be placed in biodegradable containers. There are no upright monuments or above-ground markers permitted. Instead, graves are marked with metal plaques installed at ground level.

The result is the grave becomes part of that habitat. Over time, it blends in among the wildflowers and shrubs.

Although the cemetery is located in a highly urban corridor of the Tampa Bay area, it offers a feel of being out in the country. Nestled among the longleaf pine flatwoods and surrounded by cypress domes and protected wetlands, the cemetery is filled with wildflowers, palmettos, wiregrass and blazing star plants. Visitors can visit daily to enjoy the foot paths and hiking trails. Activities such as yoga and meditation walks will soon be offered.

"This is a way for people to come out and enjoy the woods, not just focus on end-of-life decisions," Starkey said.

Besides Starkey, there are three employees at Heartwood: general manager Lisa Sommers, family adviser Diana Sayegh and grounds keeper Barnabas "Barney" Machut. Sayegh helps guide families through the process, from selecting the right spot to choosing a "green" funeral director.

"Everyone I speak to loves what Laura is doing," Sayegh said.

Sayegh enjoys explaining to curious visitors the concept of a conservation cemetery. She said many faces light up upon learning that hand-digging is allowed instead of using a tractor or backhoe to dig graves.

"There is just something about using the shovels, having that hands-on experience of burying a loved one," she said.

A green burial is not necessarily a low-cost option, with burial spots starting at about $3,000. There is no specific number of spaces available at Heartwood, since efforts are made not to disrupt the ecosystem. But Heartwood promises a lower density than a typical cemetery, and there will never be more than 500 sites per acre. Typical cemeteries can have more than 1,200 grave sites per acre.

"What I'm seeing is people feel connected," Starkey said. "It feels natural, on some deep level, with this finality of life. Your final decision is that true 'ashes to ashes, dust to dust.' ... For many, it just feels right."

>>if you go

Heartwood Preserve Conservation Cemetery is at 4100 Starkey Blvd., New Port Richey. Office hours are 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays; also by appointment. Preserve gates are open to visitors from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays and Saturdays and from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Sundays. Visit the website at or call (727) 376-5111.

Preserve's conservation cemetery offers families a 'green' end-of-life alternative 01/25/17 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 31, 2017 10:48am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Federal agencies demand records from SeaWorld theme park


    ORLANDO — Two federal agencies are reportedly demanding financial records from SeaWorld.

    Killer whales Ikaika and Corky participate in behaviors commonly done in the wild during SeaWorld's Killer Whale educational presentation in this photo from Jan. 9. SeaWorld has been subpoenaed by two federal agencies for comments that executives and the company made in August 2014 about the impact from the "Blackfish" documentary. 
[Nelvin C. Cepeda/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS]
  2. Legalized medical marijuana signed into law by Rick Scott

    State Roundup

    TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott on Friday signed into law a broader medical marijuana system for the state, following through on a promise he made earlier this month.

    Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation on Friday that legalizes medical marijuana in Florida.
  3. Line of moms welcome Once Upon A Child to Carrollwood


    CARROLLWOOD — Strollers of all shapes and sizes are lined up in front of the store, and inside, there are racks of children's clothing in every color of the rainbow.

    At Once Upon A Child, you often as many baby strollers outside as you find baby furniture and accessories. It recently opened this location in Carrollwood. Photo by Danielle Hauser
  4. Pastries N Chaat brings North India cuisine to North Tampa


    TAMPA — Pastries N Chaat, a new restaurant offering Indian street food, opened this week near the University of South Florida.

    The menu at Pastries N Chaat includes a large variety of Biriyani, an entree owners say is beloved by millions. Photo courtesy of Pastries N Chaat.
  5. 'Garbage juice' seen as threat to drinking water in Florida Panhandle county


    To Waste Management, the nation's largest handler of garbage, the liquid that winds up at the bottom of a landfill is called "leachate," and it can safely be disposed of in a well that's 4,200 feet deep.

    Three samples that were displayed by Jackson County NAACP President Ronstance Pittman at a public meeting on Waste Management's deep well injection proposal. The sample on the left is full of leachate from the Jackson County landfill, the stuff that would be injected into the well. The sample on the right shows leachate after it's been treated at a wastewater treatment plant. The one in the middle is tap water.