Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery offers a sustainable alternative to traditional burial.
Spring at the Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery paints colors drawn from the palette of native Florida plants and wildflowers. In the far margins of the cemetery are the pale purple flowers of spiderwort. Near the stately oak hammocks are the soft reds and yellows of coral bean and honeycomb-head. Green, palm-like fronds of coontie dot the small shrubs and wiregrass.
Conservation Burial Inc. (CBI) director Freddie Johnson, who operates Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery (PCCC), wouldn’t want it any other way.
PCCC is located in southeast Gainesville, off Highway 20 and adjacent to a crossing of the Hawthorne bike trail. However, on the 87-acre easement you won’t find rows of headstones or mausoleums. Instead, people who choose to lay to rest at Prairie Creek do so to return their remains to the earth in a sustainable fashion, what PCCC’s mission statement describes as “reuniting people with the environment” without the use of embalming fluids or non-biodegradable burial containers. Johnson calls this practice natural, or “green,” burial. Before the ubiquity of tombs or preservation fluids, all burials were more or less done this way.
At PCCC, every aspect of the remains and burial is closely examined to ensure the environment is modified as little as possible. For instance, PCCC only allows burial containers that are biodegradable, such as wicker caskets or natural-fiber shrouds. Done right, Johnson says, the process is completely sustainable and environmentally neutral. Illustrative of this is the flat, or nearly flat, ground that is left over from the subtle mound as a person’s remains decompose over the course of a few years.
Also discouraged at PCCC are any burial markers that may detract from the natural beauty of the grounds’ sandhill, upland pine, hammock or wetland communities. The memorials that do exist — stacked wood, native flower plantings and small boulders — are all found objects from the easement selected by loved ones. Small brass markers also indicate burial sites and are coordinated with GPS location technology.
Importantly, embalmed bodies are not accepted at Prairie Creek, Johnson said. Modern embalming fluids are made of a cocktail of preservation chemicals, such as formaldehyde and glutaraldehyde. Although these chemicals, along with energy-intensive refrigeration processes, allow remains to be preserved and viewed for days following death, their environmental impact is immense when they leach from burial canisters at traditional cemeteries. Formaldehyde in particular is known to cause cancer in humans and animals, particularly crustaceans like lobsters. Therefore, those who have elected to be buried at PCCC are laid to rest shortly following their passing. They may also be preserved at home using dry ice until it is possible to move them to the cemetery. This way, chemical input into the ground is eliminated.
Around 200 people’s remains have been laid to rest at Prairie Creek, Johnson says. Some people also choose to make PCCC the final resting place of their small furry or feathered companions. The common theme, however, is a reverence for the health of the Earth and the conservation of the plants and animals that inhabit it. For that reason, a portion of the burial fees go toward maintaining and conserving the land. But it’s not just the conservation or the sustainable practices that Johnson is proud of, it’s how the grounds of Prairie Creek are used to celebrate those who have passed.
“A lot of times people come out here and have a picnic or go on a hike,” he said. “That’s part of the model. It’s just joyful.”
The common theme, however, is a reverence for the health of the Earth and the conservation of the plants and animals that live on it.
PCCC is a joyful place indeed. Along the burial sites are three miles of trails, including the Dr. Kathy Cantwell Trail, named after the beloved Gainesville physician and environmentalist. Cantwell was the first person to be laid to rest at PCCC just after it opened in 2010. Her grave sits peacefully alongside the remains of her dog in a sunny, open shrubland of native grasses and a field of wildflowers.
To facilitate the goal of conserving Alachua County’s native landscape, both PCCC and CBI exist in conjunction with the Alachua Conservation Trust, which is also headquartered at Prairie Creek. The trust helps maintain and manage the grounds of PCCC, among other land in Alachua County, said assistant land manager Mark Larson. The main priority of the land management is to restore the land to the way it was before widespread land use altered Florida. Accordingly, land managers at PCCC like Larson plant native wiregrass and longleaf pine, remove invasive species such as coral ardisia and implement controlled burns every few years.
“When places like this burn,” says Larson, “a lot of the native vegetation responds very quickly.”
And when they do respond, says Larson, they do so with vigorous germination, flowering and seed production — and with that, the health of the easement resembles its natural state more and more.
It’s harrowing to realize the impact humans have on the Earth. However, choosing to live in a way that doesn’t cause problems for your posterity, but instead gives back, is the ultimate form of “thinking ahead.” In Alachua County, people like Johnson are working to ensure the dream of a sustainable future of those sleeping in Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery becomes reality.