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In A Year Of Disrupted Traditions And Grief, A Cemetery’s Planting Day Offers Comfort

Hidden behind the trees along Gainesville’s County Road 234 is a sanctuary of life and of death: the Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery.

This isn’t your traditional cemetery. You won’t find neat rows of tombstones or carefully trimmed greenery.

The land is wild. And the people laid to rest there wanted it that way.

It’s one of the few burial grounds in the country whose 93 acres are dedicated completely to conservation. And on Saturday, the community reaffirmed this when it came together for the cemetery’s bi-annual planting day.

In the 10 years since the cemetery opened and the three in which the event has happened, there has never been a community planting day quite like this one. Amid the uncertainty, loneliness and immense sadness of the COVID-19 pandemic, it became an especially meaningful source of comfort for grieving families.

“The people here, they’ve been waiting for this moment to plant their memorial trees,” said Freddie Johnson, the cemetery’s executive director.

“It’s good for catharsis...a good time for people to talk and share with each other, especially in this pandemic.”

Though staff members still hand dig all the graves, Johnson said the burial process has changed slightly in light of the pandemic. A maximum of 10 people are allowed at all regular burials, and face masks are encouraged. No one except for staff is permitted at COVID-related burials. For those, Johnson said he offers to record the burial for families to watch from home. It's a small consolation.

The cemetery itself remains open to the public, though the Prairie Creek Lodge is closed. Johnson encourages people to seek comfort in visiting and walking along the trails.

Cemetery lane runs right through the natural burial ground, separating it into two distinct ecosystems: the meadow and the forest. In the spring, volunteers and relatives of loved ones buried at the cemetery will plant wildflowers and shrubs in the meadow.

But on Saturday, all efforts were focused on the trees.

Johnson said they planted about 20 trees during the event. All, he noted, were native to the area: pine, holly, live oak, pignut hickory, basswood, southern red oak. You name it.

This is part of the cemetery’s mission: give people meaningful burials while also protecting the integrity of the land.

Conservation burials are exactly what they sound like. There is no embalming. There are no vaults. And all burial caskets or shrouds are biodegradable. The land is set aside for limited use through a conservation easement.

The average cost of a funeral in Florida is $7,600. At PCCC, burials are $2,000, and a portion of those fees go to land management and restoration.

The newer burial mounds protrude from the ground, covered in pine straw to keep the loose soil from moving too much. The older ones nestle more comfortably into the earth.

There are no headstones, but “nature sculptures” flank many of the burial sites. Some are fashioned into crosses, though the cemetery is open to people of all religions.

Loved ones adorn them with shells, stones, leaves and flowers. As long as the decor is natural, it’s acceptable.

On Saturday, seven families, ranging in size from one to 10 members, plunged their hands into freshly dug dirt to plant their living memorials. Carlos Gonzalez, the cemetery’s operations coordinator, said that staff (just he and Johnson that afternoon) were also planting on behalf of six families who could not make it to the event.

Gonzalez coordinates land management projects and guides people through burial planning. He assisted families throughout the day, showing them to their planting sites and helping them dig, water and fill. He shouldered grief and turned it into productivity, into a way to reconnect with the earth.

To him, the day reflected the healing power of nature.

“It helps with coping and well-being,” he said. “I think, you know, it puts people at ease”

This was a common sentiment among attendees, especially given the nature of a pandemic that forced people inside and into isolation for so long. Feelings of loneliness and fear of loss have taken their toll on the population.

“I feel like the pandemic has made people more aware of their own mortality,” Johnson said, adding that he has noticed a 30% uptick in interest surrounding burials at the cemetery.

Larry Schwandes agreed.

Schwandes, 76, is just one of over 1,000 people who hope to be buried at the Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery. With a shovel in hand and a straw hat shielding his eyes from the bright sunlight, he planted the beginnings of a pignut hickory tree at the head of a stranger's grave Saturday morning.

He is partly why the cemetery even exists in the first place. After giving a presentation in 2007 about natural burial, he inspired Johnson to start a conservation cemetery closer to home. Together, the two men, along with Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson, partnered with the Alachua Conservation Trust to set aside a portion of the Prairie Creek Preserve for conservation burial.

The first burial came in 2010.

Since then, 650 people have been laid to rest. And Schwandes has added his name to the waiting list.

“I can’t pick my spot ahead of time,” he said. “But yeah, I’m already signed up.”

He’s no longer involved in the cemetery’s management. But nevertheless, the place is his legacy.

Along the trail that cuts through the forest, small groups sank shovels into earth, undeterred by the buzzing of the occasional mosquito or the light pattering of rain that returned periodically throughout the day.

Digging brought peace.

Rochelle England and her family drove up from South Florida for this year’s planting day. Her son, Oliver, passed away in early October. A lover of the environment, he is buried in the forest.

It’s a spot where sunlight filters gently through the overhead trees, casting a warm glow onto the ground.

“We felt it was what he wanted,” England said.

Oliver’s birthday, the first one his family celebrated without him, was Nov. 6. What a coincidence, his mother added, that the planting event occurred the day after.

They visited the cemetery on his birthday, laying flowers atop their son’s burial site.

But upon returning in the morning, they were surprised to find the flowers had been eaten, no doubt by the deer that called the forest home.

“He would have loved to have all the animals around him,” his mother said with a soft sigh.

The England family was planting not only for them but also on behalf of family and friends who donated trees in Oliver’s memory.

The loss of a child, of a brother, was fresh and difficult. But England said the day out in nature was peaceful.

Together, she, her husband, their daughter and all the other cemetery visitors that day dug, planted and watered.

They gave life back to the place that would forever memorialize the lives of their loved ones.

Though COVID-19 has undeniably disrupted the way we grieve and receive support, the planting day offered a little respite and solace.

Hannah is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.