Published on 14 July 2017 in Business
Kim Thomas (author)

Kim Thomas


Walking along the pathways of Heartwood Preserve, you’ll find a completely natural landscape. It’s far enough from major roadways that if you are quiet and still – you hear nothing but the sounds of nature. Open to the public, Heartwood Preserve offers hiking trails, bird-watching opportunities and tranquility.
Much more than that, Heartwood Preserve contains one of only two conservation cemeteries in Florida. 
For many, the idea of a completely green burial is appealing. There is no embalming and the caskets or shrouds are simple and perishable. Everything is completely organic and returns to the earth naturally. Choosing a green burial at Heartwood Preserve enables one to nourish nature rather than occupy space in a conventional cemetery.
Located in Trinity, just on Starkey Boulevard, Heartwood Preserve Conservation Cemetery opened early November 2016 and is managed by Laura Starkey, who is carrying on a family legacy. Laura’s paternal grandfather, Jay B. Starkey pioneered the family’s conservation efforts and donated a portion of the family’s land to what is now the Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Preserve, an 18,000-acre conservation park that lies on border of Heartwood Preserve. The whole of Heartwood Preserve is 41 acres, with the Conservation Cemetery taking up a small section.

Laura Starkey

Laura Starkey

“Conservation comes into the name because this is a nature preserve and the property will remain in its natural state. So when you are buried here, you are participating in the preservation of this land in its natural state and contributing to the preservation of plant communities,” explained Laura Starkey. Keeping these woodlands pristine is personal for Laura, who grew up exploring the lay of her family’s land. For the past decade, Laura, as Director of Conservation Land Management, has taken care of the Starkey family’s conservation land areas. 
“I learned about natural burial at a land conservation conference and it just appealed to me,” said Laura. “It’s a way to hold on to the natural areas and also to share in the conservation with other people.”
Heartwood Preserve, along with Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park, protects Florida’s majestic longleaf pines. Laura is extremely knowledgeable about Florida’s ecology and the efforts others in the state are making to save ecosystems such as the ones supported by longleaf pines. In the office at Heartwood Preserve, one can find a number of books on natural Florida (including some by Laura’s friend Carlton Ward, author, conservationist photographer and eighth generation Floridian). 
Supporting diverse ecosystems and home to nearly 600 plant and animal species (including threatened and endangered species), longleaf pine forests once encompassed more than 90 million acres across the Southeast. According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (nrcs.usda.gov), the Southeast’s precious corridor of longleaf pines is now broken, reduced by almost 97 percent over the last 200 years. A major concern to naturalists, the plight of the longleaf pines finally gained government support in 2010, when the NRCS launched the Longleaf Pine Initiative (LLPI) in an effort to support conservation. Through the efforts of the LLPI, along with other conservation efforts such as Heartwood Preserve and Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park, the longleaf forests are slowly gaining ground. From 2010 to 2014, the amount of healthy longleaf forests grew from 3 million acres to more than 4 million acres (nrcs.usda.gov).
Remembrance Under Longleaf Pines
The meandering paths at Heartwood Preserve invite guests to take a nature walk, providing a deeply satisfying way to remember a loved one.
Laura led me on a walking tour through Heartwood Preserve and we came upon a gravesite. A simple mound surrounded with pinecones that friends and family gathered, the grave eventually will sink to seamlessly blend with the rest of the woods, becoming home to wildflowers, bushes and trees that help wildlife to thrive. No tombstones are allowed; rather a small metal plaque marks the spot at ground level. Laura said the Preserve is looking into allowing the planting of a Florida-native tree to commemorate loved ones who are buried on the Preserve.
Services are very personable. The gravesites are prepared prior to the family arriving, but family and friends are given the option to shovel dirt to fill the grave. This appeals to many grieving friends and family members on an innate level. After all, death is part of life as is grieving; the option to actively help lay one’s loved one to rest is cathartic for many.
Personally, prior to visiting Heartwood Preserve, I thought I preferred cremation to burial, simply because I don’t like the idea of my body preserved with chemicals and entombed. A final resting place under Florida’s longleaf pines, where the body truly returns to the earth sounds much better. Cremation is an option at Heartwood Preserve, and, just as with a body, the ashes must be in a biodegradable container.
While tombstones aren’t allowed, there are other ways that people have chosen to mark the graves of loved ones. One young man’s friends and family marked his simple wooden casket with handprints and drawings. Things found on the preserve land also are allowed to decorate gravesites, such as the pinecones circling the gravesite I visited with Laura.
Responsible and Loving Pre-Planning
While Heartwood Preserve is one of two conservation cemeteries in Florida, it is the only one licensed to offer pre-planning. It’s not something we like to think about, but making plans prior to one’s death is a very loving gift to those still living. Many times, when someone dies unexpectedly, the family has no clue about the personal wishes of their loved one.
“In this industry, we meet couples married 50 to 60 years that haven’t discussed their wishes for burial,” shared Heartwood Preserve Manager Diana Sayegh, who works closely with families making final arrangements as well as pre-planning. “We have casual, intimate meetings with families to discuss what a green burial means for the full body or cremains. For instance, we don’t scatter ashes; they are put into the earth. There is no embalming so that it is a completely natural burial.”
If a green burial under the Florida sky in a protected stand of longleaf pines seems like a good final resting place, stop by Heartwood Preserve’s office and talk to Diana. It’s a beautiful place to take a nature hike, and often, guided tours are available. Diana recalled a recent silent meditation walk led by a local yoga instructor. “Every now and then, she’d remind us to stop and breathe and take it all in. I really enjoyed it.” 
Talk & Tour events at Heartwood Preserve are held twice monthly on the first Tuesday of the month at 9:30 a.m. and the third or fourth Thursday monthly at 5:30 p.m. The Tuesday morning tours (led by Diana) focus on answering common questions about the green burial process. The Thursday early evening tours (led by Laura) are meant to educate the public about the conservation efforts of the Preserve and you can still catch the June Talk & Tour with Laura Starkey at Heartwood Preserve on June 22 at 5:30 p.m. 

Heartwood Preserve is located at 4100 Starkey Boulevard in Trinity, FL.  Welcome Center hours:  Mon. – Fri., 9:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. and by appointment on weekends and holidays. Nature Preserve hours:  Mon. – Sat., 9:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. and 11 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. on Sun. Find more information about Heartwood Preserve Conservation Cemetery, Talk & Tour events and guided walks at www.heartwoodpreserve.com. To schedule a pre-planning appointment with Diana, please call 727-376-5111.

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