Burying Historical Norms

Words by Rain Henderson & Joseph Guiffre

Winding through the live oak lined backroads a dozen miles southeast of Gainesville, the bright Florida summer sun beats down. The light illuminates the old houses and chicken coops we pass, miles from the hustle and bustle. Finally we take a turn down a dirt road across from an idyllic cow pasture framed by tall symmetrical palms. The shade of the woodlands is welcoming and so is the tall, smiling, plainly dressed man waiting at the gate.

Over the past two or three years people have been confronting their own mortality more than usual. “About three years ago, before the pandemic, we were doing, on average about 80 burials per year, now we’re doing about 120 a year and it’s just continually increasing,” explained Carlos Gonzalez, executive director of Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery (PCCC).

PCCC is a non-profit, community cemetery nestled within Prairie Creek Reserve, a protected conservation area near Gainesville. The 93-acre “living memorial” is licensed with the Green Burial Council and collaborates with Alachua Conservation Trust to manage, protect and restore the land for all living things.

The cemetery opened in 2010 after welcoming conversations with the Alachua Conservation Trust and the community. Dr. Kathy Cantwell, a local physician and environmentalist, was the first to be buried here after she expressed her desires of being buried in a natural way as she faced the end of her life.

As Gonzalez walked us through the natural landscape of the cemetery, we passed through specially protected cypress wetlands, large fields of native flowers and grassland, areas yet to be tended to and about 100 burial sites that blended in with the natural landscape. The only forms of written memorialization allowed on the land are very small, engraved, brass markers placed atop natural elements like pine straw to avoid movement of the soil. No weeding or raking is done, leaving the land in the closest to its natural state as possible. Prior to opening new burial spaces, the PCCC team removes invasive trees that tend to fall apart due to heart rot and quick-growing nuisance trees, including laurels and sweetgums, to make room for the protected flora like live oaks, sparkleberry and hickories to grow, Gonzalez states as he casually plucks a blue flower and pops it in his mouth. “This is spiderwort, and it’s actually edible,” he mentioned while crouching at the side of a wooded trail.

The three main principles for a natural burial are no embalming of bodies, no usage of grave liners and the use of biodegradable containers. Standards also call for digging about three and half feet during preparations for a burial site, as this is the optimal depth for allowing oxygen to reach the body and heat to radiate down into the body creating the environment needed for natural decomposition. They do all the work on the land by hand, as opposed to using machinery (unless instructed otherwise by the Alachua Conservation Trust partners) to lessen the impact on the land and to preserve the peaceful ambience. Families are able to provide material themselves such as a special quilt or bedsheet, or they can create their own caskets to provide something meaningful and also economical.

Because PCCC is not a licensed funeral director, families can choose between two routes, either contracting a mortuary institution or having a home funeral. With many funeral homes looking to capitalize on the deaths of loved ones, they don’t care about natural burials, but others have been receptive to the idea, and PCCC is actually helping a funeral home in Palm Coast with their first natural burial. When asked about the increase in interest in natural burials, Gonzalez explained the interest has generally been shared through word of mouth and rising concern for the environment. Once someone attends a burial service, for example, they often share the experience with their friends, family or on social media. A lot of people are just googling “green burial” which has resulted in people from around the world interested in PCCC’s services.

The operators of PCCC not only pay special attention to the services they provide but also the natural setting in which they perform them. Each different habitat type is treated with its own considerations. Moving through the meadow habitat of the cemetery, we were surrounded by black-eyed Susans, a native species that has flourished in the protected area now spreading and procreating on its own. The elements of wind and dropping of birds have taken over the effort once handled by planting and seeding, allowing the team to focus on different species that will help wildlife and insects. Every morning the cemetery becomes a wildlife oasis, herds of deer, turkeys and even a bobcat have been spotted making their way through the property. We took a peek into a gopher tortoise hole to see if he was home as we tiptoed around flags designating the plantings of new species such as native milkweed, small grasses and other wildflowers. Because the cemetery’s primary focus is on the families, they don’t have too much time to collect data on just how much they are improving the preserve but they hope to one day. Gonzales sees potential for the nearby University of Florida to use PCCC as a site to study the environmental benefits of natural burial.

We planted ourselves within the flowers to grab some photos while Gonzalez described his backstory and how he serendipitously fell into his current role. After receiving a bachelor of fine arts degree from the Pacific Northwest College of Art, the Portland native worked as a professional artist and an elementary school art teacher in Miami-Dade County, working at local plant nurseries and botanical gardens on the side. When his wife’s family made plans to retire and move to Gainesville, they followed close behind with plans of buying a house and starting a family.

“Not too many people were leaving that [art teacher] position, given it’s like a coveted position of being an art teacher, something that is definitely very limited, especially in a smaller city, in comparison to Miami,” he said. “There wasn’t too much opportunity for me here. And so I was working odd jobs. I eventually worked for the post office, and then started volunteering here.” His stepfather-in-law had volunteered to help dig a grave at PCCC, but when he got sick he asked Gonzalez to substitute for him: “Sure, sounds interesting,” he replied.

So there he was digging for a stranger with a group of other strangers, taking solace in the act of helping someone and creating a community unbiased by religion or ethnicity. Gonzalez became the mentee of the previous director who had plans to retire and eventually took over his position. Because of his unassuming background, Gonzalez comes at the process from a different perspective. He uses his experience in performance arts to form people’s experiences to be as impactful and meaningful as possible. PCCC works to create a place for gathering, reintroducing practices of the past when cemeteries were used for meetings of community leaders, plays and even concerts. People can gather around the notion of the circle of life clearly visible in the cemetery; it’s a reminder that nothing is ever permanent.

Cantwell’s burial site had evidence of prior prescribed burns and was visited by a fence lizard and some butterflies. Her site has also served as a landmark and safe space for the LGBTQ community, of which Cantwell was a part. All different types of people, regardless of race, religion, heritage, gender and sexual orientation are buried in the cemetery changing some of the bad history associated with historical cemeteries, a lot of which are still segregated to this day. Cantwell’s cat is buried at her feet facing east, the usual orientation of burials. Others have different preferences and prefer to see the sunset than the sunrise. PCCC also dig angeled graves in accommodation for people of Islam faith, digging the grave at a pitch with their eyes, their faces pointed toward Mecca.

The cemetery is currently at half capacity, performing 100 burials per acre (200 fewer than the Green Burial Council’s recommendation). They’ve gotten preliminary approval to expand the cemetery within the preserve itself, as well as possible talks of acquiring neighboring land not currently under conservation. The staff of Alachua Conservation Trust, who also allow the cemetery to work out of their nearby offices, are working to find places they can expand into, hoping to protect more land and to help more people achieve their loved ones’ dreams. Gonzalez sees this as a way to protect special ecosystems, stop developments and offer an alternative to conventional cemeteries that negatively impact waterways, wildlife and plant life.

Natural burials also work as an economically sound option making them available to the widest segment of the community. Burials at PCCC are about $2,000, part of which goes to their endowment fund, a necessary part of keeping the land protected forever. They recently were able to provide their staff with health insurance, a big win, and have hopes of adding to their three-person team. Fees for burials and help from donors help take care of the land and provide native plantings to restore the landscape. In the sandhill segment of the cemetery, we saw beautyberry trees and pawpaws that were used by Indigenous peoples and one that we may end up relying on as temperatures continue to rise. PCCC’s native plant program works with local nurseries that specialize in native plants to plan the best time and best types of species to plant. The rule of thumb for restoration practices in a particular region is to transplant species from laterally zoned growers, so PCCC sources from the neighboring towns of Micanopy and Hawthorne.

The cemetery is part of the Prairie Creek Preserve, meaning that recreational trails connect through it, allowing passive recreation through the landscape. Citizens come for picnics, a neighbor nearby rides her horse through the cemetery and others just casually walk through. Gonzales stated that once people realize they’ve entered a cemetery (there is no giant sign or super obvious markings), they are very respectful of it, honoring the space for what it is. The cemetery has had no real issues with the general public, wildlife or natural forces. Occasionally a grave may fill with water, but that’s just a natural part of how something can decompose. Natural burials don’t require any major modifications of the land, watershed or soil composition. In fact, Gonzalez has recognized brightening of colors and greater growth of trees atop the decomposing bodies in the ground. As he previously mentioned, PCCC doesn’t have all the resources they need for exact data collection, but they have some forms of partnership with UF bringing environmental studies interns to come out and volunteer. Gonzalez is mostly curious about the scientific effects on plant growth and the effects of cremation burials on the soil.

Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery is not only a leader in environmentally friendly practices but also in prompting a societal shift. They’ve had an increase in burials of Latinx and Black decedents and recently held a traditional Chinese burial. PCCC is working hard to differ from the horrific past that cemeteries and funeral services have had for marginalized groups. Many organizations seen as environmental entities have a board composed primarily of white men, so it hasn’t been necessarily inviting to minority groups, a term Gonzalez doesn’t like to use.

Younger people are also starting to inquire about PCCC’s services as baby boomers retire and this makes Gonzales hopeful of change. “I want those people, those young leaders that are coming in, to be looking out for everyone,” he said, “ rather than their stakeholders that have been there for forever.”

Gonzalez has had encounters with racist funeral directors and takes great joy in being able to connect with Latinx families. “Since they’re engaging with me, someone that looks like them in this role, they actually ask me different questions than they would ask someone else. They would say to me in Spanish, while the funeral directors over there, ‘can I do this? can I do that?’ And I go, ‘yes, everyone can do that.’”

On the way into the cemetery, visitors pass a confederate flag hanging from a neighboring home. Gonzalez knows society isn’t all the way there yet, but he’s doing the work, with his own bare hands, to help the shift.

About Rain Henderson

Rain Henderson is a designer, photo-journalist and writer. She contributes to the “In This Climate?!” column at Folio Weekly, where she serves as the magazine's Creative Director. Designing in Jacksonville for eight years as the former creative director for Void Magazine, co-founder of local zine Ladies Night, editorial designer for Edible Northeast Florida and brand designer for local businesses, Henderson takes inspiration from the independent music scene and grassroots organizations of Jacksonville.