Green and natural burial practices that use environmentally friendly methods and materials are part of the growing demand for eco-friendly death care alternatives. This changing deathscape includes conservation cemeteries, where bodies are interred on protected land. One cemetery that is serving as a model for sustainable practices is Heartwood Preserve in Tampa Bay, Florida, founded and run by Laura Starkey.

Heartwood Preserve and the Value of Conservation Cemeteries


Image via TalkDeath team.

The Origins of Heartwood Preserve

Laura Starkey grew up on her grandfather’s sixteen-thousand-acre cattle ranch outside of Tampa Bay, Florida. After her grandfather’s death, 75% of the land was sold to the State and set aside as protected conservation land. The remaining land was sold for development. After learning about eco-friendly burial alternatives while attending a land conservation conference convention, Laura purchased 41-acres and set about developing a conservation cemetery.

Conservation burial is defined by the Green Burial Council as “natural burial on lands protected by a recognized conservation land trust entity where conservation principles are employed to support sustainable cemetery management practices, while restoring and protecting the ecological integrity of the land.” Conservation cemeteries are one part of a much larger eco-conscious death care space, which includes green and natural burial spaces, alternative cremation techniques, and new disposition methods.

A Changing Landscape

heartwood conservation cemetery

A prescribed burn of Heartwood Preserve in 2021. Image via Heartwood Preserve/FB.

When you visit Heartwood Preserve, you will see two primary ecosystems– cypress wetlands and longleaf pine flatwoods. To keep the longleaf pine flatwoods healthy, prescribed fires are regularly lit to allow space for more diverse plants to grow and thrive in the undergrowth of the woods.

Since conservation cemeteries also focus on ecological restoration or preservation, the Preserve plays a vital role in assuring that the Gulf of Mexico receives the clean, fresh water needed to maintain the long-term health of coastal estuaries. In this way, conservation cemeteries help support native flora and fauna.


Image via TalkDeath team.

At Heartwood Preserve, embalming and vaults are prohibited. The deceased are buried in biodegradable caskets or wrapped in shrouds, and cremated remains can be buried in a biodegradable container. Bodies are placed directly into the ground and are covered by a mound of the same soil that was removed to create the plot. This way, the burial site itself works with the natural environment.

A growing number of traditional cemeteries now include natural burial as an option. These cemeteries maintain dedicated plots or spaces in the cemetery that allow bodies to be buried directly into the ground with just a shroud or a soft pine casket. While this is a step in the right direction, the lack of dedicated natural burial cemeteries speaks to the influence of traditional burial and funerary practices on our end-of-life choices.

Education and Future Cemeteries

Education is a key component of conservation burials, especially when local, state, and federal officials, and the public may have misconceptions about green and natural cemeteries. For example, natural burials are closer to the surface than traditional burials, 3ft versus 6ft. At such a depth, bodies are in no danger of being unearthed by wildlife and pose no danger to human health or to the surrounding watershed.

Natural burials have occurred as long as there have been bodies. “If you think about it, animals die in nature all the time and just become a layer in the ground.” Animals, microbes, and other natural factors all work together to facilitate decomposition. The same is true for natural burials.


Image via TalkDeath team.

What makes Heartwood Preserve such a special place is the involvement of the surrounding community. “What I think is special about green burial is that there’s a lot more family involvement.” For example, families are invited to help lower the deceased into the grave and to say goodbye with closing the grave with shovels, by hand, giving them a physical way to say goodbye.

Today, Heartwood Preserve offers numerous events and community programs every month. Notable events include yoga, sound therapy, informative talks, and grief support.

By creating a healthy and meaningful space to grieve, and supporting the natural environment and community, Laura hopes that Heartwood Preserve will serve as a model for future cemeteries.


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