On a Thursday afternoon, a small group of men and women will drive underneath a sign reading Prairie Creek Ranch and park in a dusty roundabout. They will get out of their cars and be shown, a half a mile away, to their final resting places.
These people, perhaps a dozen of them, will be taking part in a private tour of Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery in preparation for signing a final burial wish document. This will seal their commitment to being buried on this land in a radically eco-friendly fashion: no tombs, no caskets, no embalming, no gravestone. It is the vanguard of environmental preservation: a green burial.
“Some people, they have made up their minds intellectually, but they want to see it for themselves,” said Freddie Johnson, the president of Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery’s board of directors. “We’ve had about 20 people come here and sign those final burial wishes in the past month, which is about as long as we’ve been here.”
The first burial at the cemetery occurred on July 20. Dr. Kathy Cantwell, a prominent local environmentalist who founded the Putnam Land Conservancy to the east of Alachua County, was lowered into her grave as friends stood by.
Her wish to be buried on the site reflected a consciousness of the material cost of a regular funeral, Johnson said.
“Every year, there’s enough concrete used in burying people to build a highway from Tallahassee to Miami. There are enough tons of steel used to build the Golden Gate Bridge,” he said. “But this way, you’re in the middle of conservation land, and helping to conserve more of it. It’s a good option.”
So far, seventy-eight acres have been set aside for the cemetery — a tiny tract amid thousands of undeveloped acres southeast of Gainesville.
“I suspect you could hike from here to Paynes Prairie and never get off conservation land,” Johnson said. “One of the tenets is to have your area be next to conserved land, to enlarge it.”
A green burial at Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery costs $2,000, about a third of the price of a conventional burial, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Prairie Creek’s owners spent $6,000 per acre for the land, meaning that with only three burials per acre it will recoup its investment. Members of the board of directors believe that they could feasibly bury 100 people per acre.
According to Johnson, any additional revenue will be used to purchase and set aside more land.
“We basically bought this land in order to make it bigger,” he said.
The road up to the cemetery meanders through a hardwood hammock with high, rolling hills. The burial site itself lies on naturally open sandhill terrain covered in stubby grasses. Dr. Cantwell’s gravesite is visible as a small mound of pine needles, with a young magnolia tree planted at its foot. There is no headstone.
“We don’t want grave markers because it’s not part of the natural landscape,” said Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson, executive director of Alachua Conservation Trust, which owns the deed to the land, and a member of the cemetery’s board of directors.
Each hole is four feet deep, with a three-foot cover. The only non-biodegradable object in the grave is a tag required by the state for legal reasons.
“Here people are buried in only a shroud,” Hutchinson said. “In Kathy’s case, the shroud was sewn out of all her old environmental T-shirts by her friends. They tested each one to ensure that they were all environmentally safe to bury.”
The Green Burial Council, based in Santa Fe, N.M., oversees standards on issues such as burial shrouds and embalming procedures and certifies sites across the country. Prairie Creek is one of only two green cemeteries in the state of Florida recognized by the council.
The gravesite of David Brush, another of the three people interred at the cemetery so far, lies a stone’s throw away from Dr. Cantwell’s. It is signified by a mound of pebbles and loose sand. There are two pieces of iron rebar embedded near the surface of each grave, on either side of the body, so that it can be located via metal detector once other surface signs have disappeared.
“Eventually there will just be a memorial wall with all the peoples’ names,” Hutchinson said. “The idea won’t be to go out and find somebody’s grave. The idea is to see that this person helped to save all of this.” He waved an arm to take in the whole of the wildflower-spotted field.
Walking back toward his car, Hutchinson stopped short at the sight of a bone lying on the ground. He picked it up and turned it over, eventually determining that it was a deer bone from the days when the land was an exotic-game preserve.
“It would be very interesting if we were to find some sort of Indian remains out here,” Hutchinson said. He admitted that he was glad they hadn’t, since it would mean an end to further funerals on the site.
He noted, however, that the same concept that makes Indian burial ground inviolable also applies to today’s graves.
“Me, I want to spread [the graves] as thinly as possible across this land,” Hutchinson said. “That way it’s all a sacred burial ground and you can’t disturb it. People ask me how many people we’ll bury out here, and I say just enough to get the job done. And then it’s on to another place, and on to another.”
Hutchinson acknowledged that in an age when funeral directors manage the procedures and the “work of dying,” a green burial is unusual.
“This is a fairly revolutionary concept,” he said. “It shouldn’t be, but it is. And once again, it’s Gainesville leading the charge.”
The intentions of the Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery may be novel, but its methods are not.
“Back before the Civil War, people were all pretty much naturally buried,” Johnson said. “There’s not much new about this.”