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Dan DeWitt: Following the green path in life, and beyond

Frank S. Howard, the first person to receive a green burial at Brooksville Cemetery, liked an audience.

He ambushed conservative radio talk shows with liberal opinions so regularly that they learned to screen out his calls.

He loved to hear gasps of delight from his family when he raised the lid on his prized Dutch oven to reveal his "mountain man breakfast" of eggs, potatoes, cheese and sausage.

After hearing his loud, agonized howls, his family would rush to his aid from all over the house — and find out he had stubbed his toe.

Substitute teaching for his daughter's language arts class, he read his favorite antiwar poem — Bruce Weigl's Song of Napalm and cried.

"He was very melodramatic," said his wife, Onna, who drove up from her home in Land O'Lakes on Monday with the couple's three children — sons Cash, 19, and Levi, 12, and daughter Raleigh, 17 — to visit his grave in the grassy field the city has set aside for green burials.

There wasn't a bit of criticism in his family's stories, by the way. And as unfortunate as it is to die suddenly of a heart attack — as Howard did on Sept. 27 at age 54 — nobody whose family loved him this much really seems unlucky.

His wife and children said they just wanted to give a full picture of the person who was the first in the city-owned cemetery to be buried in a shroud rather than a coffin, with his wife and sons picking up shovels to help fill his grave, without embalming so his body could be absorbed by the earth.

Howard was raised in the countryside outside of Ocala, which is where he grew to love the outdoors — which, in turn, is why he later helped lead Land O'Lakes Boy Scout Troop 33 on campouts and his family on vacations to the North Carolina mountains and national parks out West.

After high school, he studied history at the University of Florida and liked it so much he could talk tirelessly — and sometimes tiresomely — about John F. Kennedy's assassination.

"You could be talking about doing the dishes," his wife said, "and he'd say, 'Speaking of the Kennedy assassination.' "

But he also liked to party and make money, which is why he dropped out of school after two years to work at a floor-covering company.

He was strong enough that he could put a roll of carpet on his shoulder and carry it up three flights of stairs, capable enough that he became a project manager while finishing his bachelor's degree in history at the University of South Florida.

What seemed like the worst thing that could have happened — being laid off when the housing market collapsed — turned out to be the best.

He found work as a substitute and then a full-time history teacher at Learning Gate Community School, a charter school in Lutz that all three of his children attended.

He couldn't believe that he was getting paid to talk about his favorite subject before a guaranteed — and usually very interested — audience.

"He loved teaching, and he was a much-loved teacher," Onna Howard said.

The only problem with living such a full life is the size of the void he left behind.

Levi did not suffer a double blow with his father's death, as some people suggested.

"Considering he was my dad and my teacher, and the guy who drove me to school and cooked for me, my (assistant) Scoutmaster, my tutor — more like a sextuple blow," he said.

Howard's equally devastated wife had to scramble to make funeral arrangements. They had never really talked about burial, just joked when they passed a beautiful spot in their travels that they wouldn't mind being put in a hole right there.

A funeral director from Loyless Funeral Home, Anastasia Alaimo, told Onna about green burial: no sealed concrete vaults or cherry wood caskets, no embalming fluid to seep into the soil, no illusion that delaying the decomposition of the corpse somehow prolongs the life of the person.

Brooksville was the best and closest option, Alaimo said. And it sounded like the perfect place for Howard, considering how much he liked nature and "being a trendsetter, a trailblazer," Cash said.

"He was big into history, and being just a little part of history would be great. But he also just kind of liked attention."

Which is the only problem. As peaceful as his plot is in the cemetery — on the edge of the woods, with wildflowers starting to creep over his grave, with distant views of the early-blooming azaleas in the older part of the cemetery — he's still the only one there. It seems a little lonely.

Howard, not surprisingly, had an unconventional view of death. He didn't believe in heaven, but did think somehow that a person's energy lives on.

If so, this quiet corner of Brooksville Cemetery might be a pretty lively place for some like-minded folks to spend eternity.

And Howard would probably appreciate the company.

. To learn more

Green burials

For information about green burials at Brooksville Cemetery, call (352) 540-3806.

Dan DeWitt: Following the green path in life, and beyond 01/22/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 23, 2013 2:41pm]
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