Decomposition's all the rage at this Pasco cemetery. Why are people turning to 'green burials'?

TAILYR IRVINE   |   Times Heartwood Preserve Executive Director Laura Starkey, 52, walks through the cemetery on Nov. 18 in New Port Richey.
TAILYR IRVINE | Times Heartwood Preserve Executive Director Laura Starkey, 52, walks through the cemetery on Nov. 18 in New Port Richey.
Published Nov. 29, 2018

NEW PORT RICHEY — Don Zegel held his son's ashes for five hard years, struggling to bury them.

Then, in the spring of 2017, he heard about Heartwood Preserve.

"I knew that if Greg were still alive, he would just want to hang out there," he said.

Gregory Michael Zegel died in 2012 from a prescription-medication overdose. He was 21 and a talented violinist who loved nature. At Heartwood, where his family buried his ashes last summer, he's part of it.

The 41-acre property off Starkey Boulevard is a conservation cemetery. It offers environmentally friendly burials in a place that's protected from encroaching development.

Heartwood celebrated its second anniversary this month. Since it opened, 16 people have found final homes there, and at least 50 others from around Tampa Bay have reserved plots.

"This is all about allowing the natural process of life and death to occur," said Laura Starkey, Heartwood's executive director.

She stood in the brush on a recent afternoon under the longleaf pines that dot the property, explaining the process. Below her was a mound of pine straw–covered earth. And below that — about 3 feet underground — rested the body of a woman buried in September.

"A little bit of grass is starting to grow back in," Starkey said.

More and more Americans are interested in "green burials," which forgo embalming, concrete-lined caskets and hulking headstones. The idea is to let nature easily absorb human remains like it would those of any other creature.

In 2010, 43 percent of people over 40 said they were interested in green funeral options, according to a survey by the Funeral and Memorial Information Council. That figure jumped to 64 percent in 2015.

Cemeteries and funeral homes have responded in kind. The Green Burial Council, a nonprofit, had certified only one North American provider in 2006. Now it boasts more than 300, with six in Florida.

Heartwood is completing the steps to qualify, and is one of only two conservation cemeteries in the state.

The cemetery abuts the 18,000-acre Starkey Wilderness Preserve. It was once part of the ranch owned by the preserve's namesake, J. B. Starkey — Laura Starkey's grandfather. And it's open for the public to walk through.

Starkey used the September gravesite to explain how green burials work. Take the 3-foot depth.

"Those (decomposition) processes occur in the first 2 to 3 feet of soil," Starkey said, discussing nature's cycle of life. "We're giving people an opportunity to complete that cycle."

The woman was wrapped in a homemade shroud and laid atop a basket-like tray. Both were biodegradable, a requirement at Heartwood and at most green burial sites.

After a grave is dug, Heartwood team members line it with pine straw and palmetto leaves. They place planks across the opening, and when the procession begins, they lay the body across the wood. When it's time for the burial itself, cemetery workers lift the body with ropes, remove the planks and lower it into the ground.

Family members are asked if they want to shovel first — many do — and within half an hour, it's all over. More pine straw goes on top of the soil, and a small, flat marker is fixed in place.

Relatives can decorate the site with anything natural they find at the preserve. They're offered wildflower seeds to sprinkle, too.

The simplicity and intimacy of Heartwood's burials may be the crux of its appeal.

"It changes this experience of death into something that's comforting and meaningful," Starkey said. "And I've never heard that said about burying the dead in a modern conventional way."

As Heartwood manager Diana Sayegh, a former traditional cemeterian, put it: "It's so simple that people are like — it's just a relief." The cemetery sells only three things: burial rights, the burial and those little markers.

Don Zegel felt that intimacy during his son's funeral.

"Man," the 71-year-old said, "it was incredible."

When Zegel visits his son's grave about every two months, the turbulence of the world fades away.

"You're just standing out there, and critters are making noises, and the clouds just seem closer," he said. "I just wanted Greg to be in a place where people could go and feel like that. And he's part of it."

Traveling to his mother's grave in upstate New York never evoked that feeling.

For now, only 2 of Heartwood's 41 acres are available for burials. More space is set to open as this section fills in.

"We feel like it's going at a really nice pace," Starkey said. "It's a good, steady, gradual increase."

A handful of neighbors were worried when her team first sought permission from the county to open the cemetery, she said. But their concerns were addressed at a forum, and she hasn't heard from any others since then.

Sayegh said she receives about three inquiries a week from families. Many are attracted by the possible savings, she said. A Heartwood burial costs from $1,535 to $4,370, depending on whether it's a full body or ashes, pre-planned or not.

The average cost of a traditional funeral, with viewing and burial, is more than $8,500, according to the National Funeral Directors Association, which has tracked that data since the 1960s.

Jack and Janet Tedder, a couple in their 70s from Weeki Wachee, were attracted by those savings, said their daughter, April Johnson.

That, combined with "the simplicity of it and the natural process of it all," made pre-planning a "triple bonus," Johnson said.

The cemetery is seeking a conservation easement, which would qualify it for admission into the Green Burial Council and ensure the land remains untouched.

That would probably secure Zegel's faith in the place he chose for his son's ashes.

"How could anyone not feel comforted in a place that beautiful and that naturally preserved?" he asked.

Contact Justin Trombly at Follow @JustinTrombly.