Perhaps one would not expect musicians playing, artists creating and kids running through the grass meadows at a loved one’s burial. However, for Eleanor Blair, this was the reality of the first burial she attended at Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery (PCCC).
PCCC aims to restore land in Florida through green burials. The cemetery, located at 7204 Southeast County Road 234, Gainesville, Florida, prepares every aspect of the funeral by hand, meticulously and without harming the natural growth on the reserve.
Eleanor Blair, 75, is a volunteer with PCCC and a member of the Society of the Pick and Shovel, a group of individuals who dedicate time to digging graves on the cemetery grounds.
“We have isolated ourselves from our beginnings and endings,” she said. “The process of dying is a part of our lives.”
When her mother passed away, she knew she wanted to bury her at PCCC, which was simple and serene. She and her family built a beautiful garden months after the burial over her mother’s graveside. Later, her beloved dog and cemetery mascot, Archie, passed away and was also able to be buried near her mother.
“It is amazing how involved Prairie Creek is in land restoration and conservation,” said Blair. “There is an intimacy to it that you don’t see at a traditional funeral. It is quite amazing.”
Blair continues to help volunteers dig graves when she is able. Other times, she enjoys the camaraderie, watercolor paints, and plays with her two new dogs at the gravesides.
Finnian Covey-Shannon, the Assistant Director of PCCC, began his journey with the organization in 2022 after graduating from the University of Florida with degrees in sustainability studies and anthropology.
“I think this is really important work. There is something special about spaces that work in the intersection of community and the environment,” said Covery-Shannon. “It is important to find that balance and provide this option for people. I have also discovered in my time here a lot of what I feel is injustice in handling death and dying in this country. Working with an organization striving to make the most accessible option available to as many people as possible is special.”
Last year was the busiest year for PCCC yet, completing over 160 burials in total. That is compared to their beginnings 13 years ago when they only carried out about one dozen burials a year.
Richard Barr of Apopka, Florida, buried his wife this year at Prairie Creek after spending 37 loving years together with two children and ten grandchildren.
Battling cancer, Debbie discovered green burials and PCCC after finding a YouTube video about the process. The Burr’s then traveled up to Gainesville and toured the cemetery. After taking a moment to sit in silence, Debbie knew that was where she wanted to be.
“You could feel it in your bones. It was quiet and serene, unlike any traditional funeral home we went to. It was more real and more natural,” said Richard.
The service for his wife was up-close and personal. The cemetery allowed the family to be as involved or not involved as desired. Richard explained that he was drawn to apply himself in the moment and the atmosphere.
“It was a total, hand-in, family experience. It was real, and we were a part of it. She was able to become one with the Earth again, just like she wanted,” he stated. “I would recommend it to anyone.”
“I think that what this can offer people, what conservation burial can offer people, is a very human approach to the process, a very interpersonal approach to the process. And closure,” said Cover-Shannon. “We do everything by hand and fill the grave with the families when they want. In most cases, families stay while the grave is being filled back in regardless of whether or not they are participating.”
Prairie Creek brings life from comfort and healing to death through compassion and community. Beyond that, tangible, physical energy, such as trees, flowers, weeds, and natural substances, are used during the burials.
Covey-Shannon added, “There is something more here. You don’t walk into this space and feel generational sadness. You walk in this space and feel life, rejuvenation, and what’s to come.”