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

Natural burials at Heartwood Preserve Conservation Cemetery are simple and natural. All the dirt that is dug out for the burial is put directly back onto the grave. Burial mounds are covered with pine straw that are collected on site, which keeps the soil from eroding and helps natural reseeding. Over time, the mound will settle back down to grade level. [Photo by A. Ragan]
Published Jan. 31, 2017

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."

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