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Burial Trends: Green to the End

Prarie Creek Conservation Cemetery
Kathy Cantwell's burial at Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery, which is devoid of tombstones, caskets or grave markers. The deceased are buried directly in the soil. [Photo: Elizabeth Binford]

When Gainesville physician Dr. Kathy Cantwell died last summer, her friends and family buried her just the way the longtime environmentalist wanted. She was not embalmed and had neither a costly casket nor a tombstone. She was buried directly in the soil of Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery, 78 acres of sand hills and hardwood hammock edged by wetlands, where the grave sites are marked with nothing but trees, prairie grasses and bursts of wildflowers in the springtime.

The Prairie Creek cemetery, southeast of Gainesville near the sprawling Paynes Prairie State Preserve, is part of a new trend in "green burial" in the United States. But it's more like a return to the old. The cemetery launched last summer in cooperation with Alachua Conservation Trust, a non-profit land trust that works to protect natural, historic and recreational lands around Alachua County. The trust created a conservation easement for the cemetery, which pays for and manages the land with the $2,000 it collects for each burial.

Prairie Creek is the first cemetery in the Southeast and only the third in the U.S. to earn the highest certification as a "conservation burial ground" by the U.S. Green Burial Council. Requirements for the designation include a land-restoration plan, native landscaping and a perpetual endowment for land management.

"People want more control over their experience, and they want a spiritual connection," says trust Executive Director Robert "Hutch" Hutchinson. "They want to go back to the old ways of preparing the dead, the work of taking care of their loved ones. We encourage people to do as little or as much as they want to."

Friends can dig the graves themselves. Families can toss wildflower seeds or plant a native tree.

"We learned that certain sects— Orthodox Jews, Muslims and B'hais — have been doing a lot of this already," says Hutchinson. "There's nothing truly exotic or new about it — we're just making it available to everyone."