Heartwood Preserve is more than a montage of spectacular wildflowers, towering trees and wide paths that invite a serene stroll. It is the region’s first “conservation cemetery,” where human remains are interred naturally, part of a growing trend away from traditional burials in favor of eco-friendly gravesites.
Heartwood Preserve is the brainchild of Laura Starkey – the granddaughter of cattle rancher J.B. Starkey who assembled vast holdings encompassing thousands of acres in Pinellas and Pasco counties. Part of the family’s original homestead, Heartwood includes ancient longleaf pine, native palms and wildflowers galore and is adjacent to Starkey Wilderness Preserve, a popular recreation area in southwest Pasco.
“The goal is to keep the land in its original shape forever,” Starkey said. Embalming fluids and ornate caskets aren’t allowed. Plain wooden boxes that biodegrade are encouraged, as are cotton shrouds that are traditional among many religions. Cremains are welcome in biodegradable bags, but not sprinkled because that would impact the native plants. Graves are identified with a complicated map that shows each site section by section, and flat bronze markers that will be nearly impossible to find as nature takes over the site.
“The internet is full of the dangers of embalming fluid and even a $10,000 coffin will break down eventually,” Starkey said. “The goal here is to create a natural setting that is protected forever.”
Some graves are marked with stones and shells, but Starkey discourages anything (even other native plants) that aren’t naturally found on the 40-acre site. “Pine flatwoods already are some of the most diverse habitats in the world, with dozens of plant species blooming nearly year-round,” she notes.
Heartwood is one of just 300 green cemeteries in North America today, and only the second in Florida (Prairie Creek near Gainesville was the first) .”It’s just the natural choice for environmentalists,” Starkey said. “Plots are similarly priced but when you cut out the embalming and expensive coffin, it’s a much more affordable than a traditional burial — not to mention the environmental benefits.”
Heartwood Preserve is also the first preservation cemetery in Florida where people can “pre-plan” their own arrangements so their children don’t need to, Starkey adds.
“I walked in with the dogs (allowed on leashes) for a neighborhood open house and as soon as I got there, it just felt right,” said Mary Ellen Goto, a Pasco master gardener who specializes in native plants. “My husband still doesn’t see how I can be so excited about dying.”
With two disabled sons, pre-planning was a necessity and the couple had already decided upon cremation. “We found one spot that’s perfect for both of us and one son – we’re right in the middle of the Liatris section, one of my favorite wildflowers – and we have a gorgeous view.”
Most pre-planners – who work out to about three for every immediate-need burial – spend a good bit of time wandering the property to find the perfect spot, Starkey adds. “It really is a very special place and people like being here. It doesn’t feel anything like a cemetery – it looks like the natural preserve it has always been.”
For other people, like one woman who buried her father here, it was something she knew he wanted. “I know this is perfect for my dad,” she told Starkey. “He loved walking in the woods with his dog.”
Heartwood already has hosted some events – including field trips for native plant societies and bird watchers – and expects to schedule more this year including yoga and guided eco-tours, she adds. Also on the drawing board is a 2,000-square-foot welcome center with meeting space for local groups as well as a spot where family-oriented ceremonies can be held.
The 40-acre cemetery officially opened late last year after more than seven years of planning. A total number of graves hasn’t been determined because digging won’t be allowed under a tree canopy where roots might be harmed, and part of the site adjoins a wetlands where a buffer is required.
And, yes, Laura Starkey has already picked her own spot – in the Cypress Bend section at the back of the property that isn’t open yet. “It’s in a little copse with a view of the wetlands.”
Learn more at www.heartwoodpreserve.com or call 727-376-5111.