A sustainable cemetery

Humans continually use land for homes, businesses, farms and roads. And it’s inevitable that many of us will end up taking up a 6 by 3 foot plot of land when we die. But now there are efforts underway to provide a final resting place with the least amount of impact to our environment.


Humans continually use land for homes, businesses, farms and roads, and some of us will end up taking up a 6x3-foot plot of land when we die, but now there are efforts under way to provide a final resting place with the least amount of impact to our environment.

Here's the story.


Heartwood Preserve is a nature preserve and also a conservation cemetery.

A conservation cemetery uses green burial practices, which means no embalming, no vault, no concrete vault, just a simple biodegradable casket or a shroud or the burial of cremated remains, and we do the green burial in a nature preserve setting.

This preserve is located near New Port Richey, Florida, and has remained untouched from development.

We have a cypress-dome wetland as part of the preserve.

The other ecosystem that we're protecting is longleaf pine flatwoods.

The 41-acre preserve once was part of the sprawling Starkey Ranch.

Today, it remains adjacent to the 18,000-acre Starkey Wilderness Preserve.

This 41 acres, its value environmentally, ecologically, is larger because it borders this wilderness park.


In January of 2017, the Heartwood Preserve celebrated its grand opening.

We had over 150 or so people come out and had a really fun time.

People didn't expect to have a good time at a cemetery on a Saturday, but we had music...

♪ And I can hear a heavenly band full of angels coming to set you free ♪

We brought in a caricature artist from the Tampa area, a local artist.

He was busy the whole time he was here.

We also had a henna-tattoo artist, who painted beautiful designs on people's hands and arms and wrists, so that was really nice, and we had face painting for the little kids.

We do have walking trails and footpaths around the property, so this gave an opportunity for people to get an actual tour of the main areas of our main trails and gave people an opportunity just to get excited about what we're doing, not only as a cemetery, but as a nature preserve that is really about all of the parts of life that are happy and joyous as well as at the end of life.

By being a cemetery and nature preserve, there are some unique ways the property can be managed and maintained as natural Florida.

As a business, we're structured similarly to a conventional modern cemetery.

A percentage of your burial fee, by law, goes into a care and maintenance trust fund, and that trust fund is basically... exists to make sure that that cemetery is cared for into the future.

For us, it's more to do the land management, the ecological management of this site.

Laura wants to guarantee that the preserve remains natural, so she sought out the help of the Tampa Bay Conservancy.

The Tampa Bay Conservancy is working across this region to fill the role of a land trust.

The purpose of our land trust is to protect open space, wildlife habitat, also cultural areas that are important for the citizens of this region.

Laura has offered the preserve as a conservation easement to be controlled by the Conservancy.

Board member Ann Paul has worked with many landowners who want their property to remain wild forever.

When Laura is offering this land as a conservation easement to the Tampa Bay Conservancy, she's making a promise that this area will never be paved over for shopping development or a housing community.

It's always going to have this beautiful, open aspect with the native trees, the native plants and the native wildlife that live here today.

Wildlife biologist Dave Sumpter is working with Laura in developing a strategy to manage the land.

What they would find there that they wouldn't find in your typical cemetery is, you would find natural Florida, and the Heartwood Preserve is predominantly pine flatwoods, which is a very common native habitat in this part of Florida.

It's driven by fire.

We call those pyrogenic plant communities, meaning everything that lives in pine flatwoods is adapted to fire, and the reason it's adapted to fire is because, you know, we're in the lightning capital of the world, here, and so we get a lot of lightning strikes in the summer, and everything burns, and so things, when fire comes through, it doesn't, like, kill all the wildlife.

It actually rejuvenates the vegetation.

The important thing to recognize here is that the management of conservation areas and the protection of conservation areas in perpetuity is totally in line and compatible with an organic cemetery.

The battle over land in Florida continues where conservationists look for ways to protect wildlife corridors.

Florida has one of the most aggressive land-acquisition programs in the country, but it's still constantly kind of a land grab.

How much do we need for conservation?

How much development can we incur?


Laura Starkey grew up in this wilderness.

She feels a special connection to the land.

When I was young, it was our family and a few other families that got to know and love and touch this land and care for it.

As I've gotten older and moved out into the world and come back, I see how much it means to people to get to experience the outdoors.

They'll come out here and just go, 'Wow. It's so peaceful here, and it feels good,' and people really relate to that.

As a preserve and cemetery, the goal is to have as little impact as possible to the environment.

I like the idea of leaving this no footprint.

I really like the idea of leaving no footprint and being part, you know, the ashes-to-ashes part of the soil and part of the natural areas, and this allows you to do that.

I've already got an area back there that I would love to be placed at my time, so hopefully a long time from now, but it's a beautiful space back there that, as soon as I saw it, I thought, 'Okay.

This would be good for me.'