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Natural burials provide eco-friendly alternatives to traditional cemeteries

Posted: 2:26 PM, Jul 08, 2019
Updated: 2019-07-15 11:42:21-04
Heartwood Preserve grave.jpg

TRINITY, Fla. - Want to save the Earth and save some money? You may be able to do both depending on your willingness to embrace an ancient practice - natural burial!

Fox 4 spent some time exploring "green burial" at an eco-friendly cemetery in Pasco County - just north of the Tampa Bay area.

It's called Heartwood Preserve . Executive director Laura Starkey says it is a "conservation cemetery" and it leaves out the potential pollutants that conventional burials can put into the earth.

"There’s the amount of concrete vinyl and metal and plastics that go into vaults and big caskets," she says. "We don’t need to put things in the earth we don’t need to be there."

At natural burial grounds, a body can be laid to rest in something as simple as a biodegradable cotton shroud.

Lynette Steil and her late husband, Gil, chose Heartwood together. She now brings him roses - only natural grave decorations are allowed.

And she says she likes what's not in his grave. "Embalming, no. Cement liners, no," she says as she ticks off the reasons they decided on green burial.

Laurie Wiseman and her family decided green burial would be appropriate for her parents who are now laid to rest at Heartwood. "Being with nature and being part of the land, it sounded right," she says.

She also says the nature that surrounds her parents' final resting place can soften the hard edges of visiting those she's lost. "It's a lot more pleasant that walking out into a barren graveyard with grey headstones," says Laurie.

"Coming out here it actually enjoyable and my kids want to visit their grandparents," she says.

She pointed to a butterfly gently fluttering on her parents' burial site during our interview.

And she sayings bringing her kids here always brings something new to see. "We walked out one day and the cows were grazing," she says. "There was a mother grasshopper with 20 babies behind her."

"Like the Bible says, 'Our earthly bodies are planted in the ground,'" says Laurie. "So that's what we're exactly what we're doing and they're at one with the earth."

There's also another benefit to green burial.

"We're actually giving back a little bit and kind of preserving what we have here," says Laurie.

In fact, it was a desire to preserve the land that led to the creation of Heartwood Preserve. In the beginning, a natural cemetery was the last thing on mind of Laura Starkey, the executive director. "It started out with just trying to figure out a way to just try to hold onto more of the trees," she says.

Laura grew up on the land which has owned by her family for generations. "So I grew up on this land," she says. "And I love these woods."

The Starkeys mostly used the property for cattle ranching which requires a lot of space. Some years ago, the family sold some of land which was developed.

But Laura wanted to preserve some of what was left. "It's an endangered ecosystem," she says. "It's called a Longleaf Pine Flatwoods."

When she came across the concept of a natural cemetery, it piqued her interest. "I kind of approached kind of way to go about conserving land," she says.

As a conservation cemetery, the land is preserved and humans are included to the forest's natural cycle of life and death. "It's such a vibrant exciting ecosystem," she says.

"And then to be a part of this as part of a cemetery, it's such a beautiful way for people to be part of regenerating life," says Laura.

During our visit, we saw a small pine tree beginning to grow at the foot of a burial site. Loved ones are not allowed to plant anything on the graves, but if flowers, plants and trees take root naturally, they're permitted grow as they normally would.

Pat Zimmer showed us what sprouted on her late husband's final resting place. "This is the first thing that came up, a palmetto right in the middle of the grave," says Pat.

Pat uses some of the dried pine straw at the Preserve to creates biodegradable urns.

Some of the urns are on display - and for sale - inside Heartwood Preserve's new visitor center.

Laura says the whole process of creating Heartwood has felt very natural. "This is the way, the best way, to return naturally back to the earth," she says .

Lynette says green burial has made her visits to see her late husband more uplifting as well. "It makes me happy," she says of coming to the conservation cemetery. "And I'm going to go here with him when it's my time."

Heartwood Preserve isn't the only green burial option in Florida. We also spoke with David Ponoroff, assistant director at Prarie Creek Conservation Cemetery in Gainesville. He also gave us some more perspective on green burial.

"When considering cemeteries that allow green or natural burials (the terms are interchangeable), the standards to go by are from the Green Burial Council," he says.

"They are an optional certifying agency for the death care industry."

"For cemeteries, there are three levels of certification and you can read all that goes into their standards on the Green Burial Council's website , but here's a basic explanation:

'Hybrid cemeteries' are conventional cemeteries that set aside a space for people to have a green burial.

'Natural cemeteries' are cemeteries that only allow natural burial.

'Conservation cemeteries' are cemeteries that only do natural burials, and combine that with land conservation efforts."

"We at PCCC are that last upper tier," says David. "We were the fourth, of now about ten conservation burial grounds in the country."

"There are some who have not gotten the Green Burial Council's certification, but are doing the same kind of work we are," he adds.

"Luckily for Florida residents, two of the ten or so conservation burial grounds in the country are in Florida."

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