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Sending the Dead Back to the Land, Naturally

A feathery afternoon rain sweeps across the tall grass and clusters of oak forest here, adding an extra layer of hush to this wilderness preserve that's also a resting place for the dead.

The 75 or so individuals buried at Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery have one distinction in common: They or their families cared enough about Florida's environment to consecrate their bodies to a natural cycle that will keep these 78 acres and their surroundings free of development and manufactured chemicals for as long as human law can protect them.

Scattered across former ranchland that is being restored by a conservation trust to a pristine state, the nearly unnoticeable graves are mounds of pine straw marked only by flat metal disks, and sometimes native plants or wood formations.

One of these sites belongs to Sarasota's Stewart Kohn.

Kohn died at 82 on Nov. 12, about a month shy of his 60th wedding anniversary. But he and his wife had traveled through time together for even more years than that: Their parents encouraged them to become friends when Stewart and Estelle were children.

Like many long-married couples, the Kohns had discussed what they hoped would happen when they died. Stewart favored cremation as convenient and cost-effective, but Estelle shuddered at the idea.

"I talked him out of that," she says. "I'm Jewish, and I think Hitler did enough to us."

As a swimmer, Estelle was drawn to the possibility of a burial at sea. But when she called a Sarasota funeral home to ask about it, she says, "they hung up on me."

Then, in one of the many environmental magazines the Kohns received, Estelle read about green burial — an increasingly available option that returns to the pre-Civil War custom of placing an unembalmed body in a hand-dug grave, wrapped in a shroud or encased in a biodegradable container.

Her daughter, a hospice nurse in Washington state, searched online and found Glendale Memorial Nature Preserve in the Florida Panhandle — the first place in the state to offer green burials in a natural setting.

Estelle Kohn made an appointment at Wiegand Brothers Funeral Home in Sarasota — but this time she didn't risk revealing what she wanted over the phone. When the couple and their daughter met with Gary Wiegand, Estelle was relieved that he was willing to discuss all their options.

"He discouraged me actively from being buried at sea," she says. "It's this huge, big, heavy casket and has some kind of holes and straps, and then you have to find someone to take you out into the Gulf."

Wiegand told them about Prairie Creek — at two and a half hours away, a much shorter drive than the Panhandle. As supporters of just about every environmental cause, Estelle says, they liked the idea of being part of a land conservation effort.

It was Estelle who cared most about making the process of her passing both dignified and as gentle as possible to the planet. But it was Stewart Kohn's body, unembalmed and wrapped in cotton sheets, that Wiegand would deliver to Prairie Creek on Nov. 17.

Estelle's daughter and son-in-law drove her to the cemetery, and they were met by family friends with her son, who flew to Gainesville from Boston. Together — in a grassy cove surrounded by oaks, cabbage palms and a stand of hickory — they quietly, privately said their goodbyes.

"Everyone was so lovely. It was the perfect place to be buried," Estelle says. "And they know that I want to be buried next to him."

No one keeps track of the number of green burials in the United States. But surveys show that interest in Earth-friendly funerals is rising, especially among the 78 million baby boomers who are expected to transform the mortuary industry over the next 40 years.

Already, funeral providers are changing in response.

Growing numbers are willing to dispense with embalming — the formaldehyde used to preserve bodies is a carcinogen — as well as vaults and caskets that fill the planet with concrete, metals and endangered hardwoods. Some cemeteries — including two in Florida — have become "hybrids," offering both green and conventional burials.

One hybrid is the historic city-owned cemetery in Brooksville, north of Tampa, which predates the Civil War. Sexton Rich Howard says its "Green Meadows" section opened about five years ago — "a nice, quiet, serene area overplanted by wildflowers," where embalming, vaults and elaborate coffins are not allowed.

"A plain pine box is probably best, but what seems to be popular are shrouds," Howard says. "If you're putting in cremains, we encourage the family to dig the hole. One of the nicest services I've seen out here is a loving family digging a hole and putting their mom and dad in."

Sales of Green Meadows plots have picked up since the Great Recession, he says: "We're getting the baby boomers and the tree huggers, of which I am one."

Meanwhile, the definition of what constitutes a truly natural burial is undergoing some refinement. "Conservation burial" raises the bar by ensuring that a legal trust protects the site from development, while the costs of interment go toward a fund that pays for land management.

The first U.S. conservation cemetery opened in 1998 in Westminster, South Carolina. Its operators helped John Wilkerson, director of the Glendale Memorial Nature Preserve near DeFuniak Springs — he calls himself a "nature preserve steward and part-time gravedigger" — to open his 350-acre pine forest site in 2002.

Glendale paved the way in convincing state legislators to relax long-entrenched laws supported by the industry, Wilkerson says, and some 78 burials have taken place there.

The business reserves 25 percent of its $1,800 grave fee for long-term maintenance, Wilkerson says, "but I'll be honest with you; trust funds are so outrageously expensive to establish that we just put it in a checking account."

Wilkerson believes the green burial movement is on the brink of a dramatic expansion.

"We were No. 2 in the nation, and there must be 50 or 100 people who have called us wanting to start one," he says. "Us baby boomers are beginning to drop like flies, and hippies of the '60s are paying attention to this issue."

Since the nonprofit Green Burial Council formed in 2005 to encourage a partnership between land conservation and natural burials, it has approved more than 300 sites in North America. Council director Joe Sehee says the rising popularity of green burial prompted the need to set national standards.

"This field — as in every field — has the potential for 'greenwashing,' where consumer aims aren't furthered," he said, adding that some so-called natural cemeteries still require concrete vaults or don't allow the use of shrouds.

Sehee also said the land conservation component needs to be legally binding, not just cosmetic.

"It's vital to have promises that run with the land," he said. "You have cemeteries that claim to be creating some habitat — but what happens if the operators don't make a go of it and sell it to someone else?"

Sehee thinks Americans are just beginning to grasp the green burial concept.

"The reason it's been slow in this country is because baby boomers are not quite ready to die — but conservation burial does provide a context for people to talk about this earlier in life," he says. "When you talk to families who have gone through this or planned it, they find a lot of solace in this idea of decay and rebirth."

Prairie Creek is the only place in Florida certified by the Green Burial Council.

Its Old Florida habitat surrounds a rustic lodge that started as a private ranch house, then became the headquarters of an exotic game-hunting operation before the Alachua Conservation Trust turned it into the Prairie Creek Preserve.

"I guess we're trying to reverse that karma now," cemetery director Freddie Johnson says wryly. "When it was a hunting lodge, there were heads of dead animals all over the place."

Gentle work is underway to manage the land back to its roots as loblolly pine uplands and cypress wetlands. The trust makes the lodge available for funeral meals or ceremonies, and part of the $2,000 burial fee goes into its endowment fund.

"It's a wonderful use of the land," Johnson says. "It's not about concentration and real estate; it's about what is balanced. We will not have more than an average of a hundred burials per acre. Usually, at a conventional cemetery, it's around a thousand or more."

Because of Florida laws restricting pre-need funeral sales, Prairie Creek does not reserve burial sites in advance — but an adjacent spot is automatically set aside for a spouse. Hospice patients or their families can pre-select a site; others can use a planning document to make sure their families know their intentions.

"I call it a reservation, like you would make with a hotel, to know you've got a place and you don't care which room it is," Johnson says.

In addition to full human burials, Prairie Creek has had about 25 burials of cremated remains and "20 or so" pet burials.

"We consider ourselves a family cemetery," Johnson explains, "and that includes family pets."

Like Estelle Kohn, Johnson says he ran into blocks 10 years ago when he was completing his own will and wanted alternatives to conventional burial and cremation — which is less costly than burial, but releases mercury and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

"Before I started doing this, I would think back on funerals and burials in my family — including my parents' — and for the most part I would have to say I was allowed very little participation," he says. "Here, I see the opposite of that. We had a family who were musicians; all of them played instruments at the gravesite for 150 people."

Graves at Prairie Creek are dug and filled by volunteers and sometimes work-release inmates, who place the body in the ground using a wooden pallet.

The trust has a moratorium on planting trees to mark graves, so it can manage the ecosystem. But flowers and shrubs native to the region are allowed, as well as "natural sculptures" — fallen wood that has mineralized over time.

"One of our board members calls them dinosaur wood," Johnson says. "They're old cypress or pine, or maybe cedar, that people themselves have found. When they're gone, they can be replaced, but they're all natural and all from the area. The uniqueness of each one has its parallels in the uniqueness of each human being."

As for covering the body, families can use "anything that's biodegradable," he says. "We're not so picky; if it's 90 percent cotton, we're not going to do an analysis. But if somebody brings out a shower curtain. that's not acceptable."

What works really well, he says, is a cardboard box.

"You might think that cardboard is not respectful," Johnson admits. "But some of the most beautiful ceremonies I've seen involve kids and family members decorating in colors, with poems and photos, on a plain cardboard casket.

"It becomes part of the ceremonial event."

Estelle and Stewart Kohn's parents became close in New Jersey before the children were born, 15 months apart.

But Estelle grew up in Stanton, Virginia, while Stewart's family had relocated to Miami Beach. As they grew up, they communicated mostly by mail and expensive long-distance calls.

"We figured out that we had a courtship of six weeks over 14 years," Estelle remembers. "He always said the reason he married me was that it took me forever to say something on the phone" — because of her soft Virginia drawl. "And I would say I married him because I couldn't read his handwriting."

Estelle was working at a post-college advertising job in Richmond when Stewart invited her to spend her vacation with him in Florida, where he had become a certified public accountant. At dinner, she overheard a conversation between him and a University of Florida fraternity brother.

"I heard him say to Stew, sotto voce, is this something serious?" she says. "And I heard him say yes."

The Kohns married and raised two children in Miami Beach, a boy and a girl. Before retiring, they often stopped in Sarasota on trips to Gainesville, where the Kohns had endowed a scholarship at the UF journalism school to honor Stewart's brother Alfie, who died in World War II.

In 1995, after Estelle was held up at gunpoint outside a Miami Beach restaurant, they decided to make Sarasota their new home. Their final move was two years ago, to the Glenridge community in Palmer Ranch.

Last fall, Estelle collapsed after dinner when their son was visiting. Emergency responders had to restart her heart. While she recovered in the nursing home at Glenridge, her son and daughter hired home health aides to care for Stewart.

"He was falling a lot and we didn't know why," Estelle says. "I was doing very well in the Carroll Center, and they would bring him to me for lunch and dinner."

One day, after a visit with Estelle, Stewart fell over while sitting on a bench and was unresponsive. At the hospital, he got four units of blood. Doctors looked for the source of his blood loss, and found a cancerous mass in the esophagus.

"I came out of the Carroll Center on my birthday, Oct. 23, and he went in that day," Estelle says. "It was a terrible birthday."

Her husband would live another three weeks. She sat by him all day, every day. With her children, she discussed what would happen after he died.

"One day, I walked in and I said, 'I have to talk about something serious to you,' " she says. Her husband's response was a grimace.

"He didn't answer me; but he wasn't talking at that point," she recalls. "I said, 'Are you still OK with the green burial?' Then he smiled and nodded. I got from the smile that he was amused that I said it was serious."

A memorial gathering was held at Glenridge for Stewart Kohn. Estelle's daughter and son-in-law went shopping for new sheets, she says, "because mine all had Dacron in them. That was the last time I saw him, in a sheet on a platform."

The Kohns' friend in Gainesville — Ralph Lowenstein, an emeritus dean of the journalism school — visited Prairie Creek and let Estelle know what to expect at the burial.

"Wear old shoes," he told her.

She met him and his wife at the lodge with her son, and they drove down a bumpy two-track road to the grave site. Workers lowered the body into the earth using ropes.

"That was hard; it was really hard," Estelle says. "I guess it's supposed to be. The kids sat on either side of me. At one point when they were lowering it, it got stuck or something and Ralph jumped up and helped them."

Lowenstein doesn't remember doing that. But his friend's green burial made a vivid impression on him.

"It was the first one I had ever attended," he says. "It's really a completely different experience. I'm used to burials with the regular coffin and even vaults. There's something to be said for knowing the body is there without seeing the body."

Still, Lowenstein allows, the conservation burial movement can be seen as a fitting response to a changing world.

"In a sense, it's dust to dust, and that's the Jewish commandment also. I thought it was appropriate," he says. "I always think that burials are really for children, and maybe grandchildren — and who knows, with our mobile society, who will ever visit?"

Johnson says it does happen at Prairie Creek. While most burials are local — some of them "home burials," where families bring loved ones straight from their houses — he has also seen burials attended only by the funeral director and staff, after a memorial service in another city.

"It's a situation where the family wanted to honor the loved one's wishes by having a natural burial here," he says, "and the only family member I see might come through town years later."

When that happens, Johnson consults his map and takes the visitor to the right spot — a quiet opening in the slowly recovering wilderness, where Spanish moss stirs in the breeze, and memories abound.