Pasco County conservation cemetery embraces nature and sustainability for eternal rest

When you think of a cemetery, you may think of headstones and graves that are neatly laid out, surrounded by green, mowed grass. But, a growing number of people are looking for something different. A cemetery in Pasco County is offering a more natural way to say goodbye. 

When Gennifer Moreno’s 28-year-old son Matthew passed away, it seemed like a perfect choice. 

"He loved animals and he loved nature," Moreno shared. 

The grave is in the woods. There is a simple plaque with Matthew’s name. A cross and a heart made from sticks and some shells decorate a mound of dirt that is Matt’s final resting place.

Moreno said on the day Matt was buried, there was a simple service in which his family played an active role. 

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"To be hands-on, to help bury him, to help lower him down, it was very special," Moreno explained. 

Matthew's headstone in the natural cemetery.

Matthew's headstone in the natural cemetery. 

n this conservation cemetery, everything on the grave and in the grave is biodegradable, and will eventually return to the Earth. 

"The graves are really meant to be embraced by the woods over time," shared Laura Starkey, who opened the cemetery in 2016. 

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Starkey was looking for a way to preserve part of the ranch started by her grandfather in the 1930s but now is surrounded by new suburbs.

"I grew up loving these woods and being connected to them through my family's history here," Starkey stated. "This was a way for me and this community to hold onto a corner of natural Florida and pay for it."

Heartwood is one of only a few such cemeteries in Florida

Everything in the cemetery is biodegradable.

Everything in the cemetery is biodegradable. 

So far, there are more than 200 people interned across a four-acre section. There are 41 acres available, so hundreds more can be accommodated with burials or the internment of cremated ashes. 

It costs around $4,300 to be buried in the natural cemetery, not including funeral home costs. Like all cemeteries, Heartwood is required to set aside money for the perpetual care of the cemetery. 

"All of these families together are protecting these woods," said Starkey.

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Heartwood is both a nature preserve and a cemetery, but it's not really a new way to be buried.

"It’s the way burials always have been up until modern times," Starkey explained. 

At Faupel Funeral Home in New Port Richey, they normally embalm a body and bury them in a casket, but embalming isn't done with natural burial. 

People can be buried in a cotton shroud, a pine box, or even their favorite pair of Levi’s. 

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"We just have to remove the zipper and snaps, so that everything is biodegradable," said David English of Faupel Funeral Home, which has handled several burials at Heartwood. "One lady who passed away was an avid quilter, so the family asked if she could be wrapped in her favorite quilt. It was 100 percent biodegradable."

The cemetery is meant to conserve nature.

The cemetery is meant to conserve nature. 

He says a conservation burial can cost less than a traditional burial, which in this area, can cost $7,000 or more.

However, what some find with a conservation burial is priceless. 

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"It’s so peaceful, it really helps us focus on what’s real," shared Moreno. 

For her, nothing is more real than nature and a mother’s love for her son. In time, Matt and the others buried here will be part of the woods that overtake them, as they go back to the Earth. 

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