Public Radio for the Space Coast

Going out ‘green.’ Demand grows for Florida funerals that preserve nature, cut pollution

The family of Janet McAliley, a four-term Miami-Dade County Public School Board member, lifts her biodegradable casket into a grave during a funeral service at Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery.
Courtesy of Chris McAliley

As bagpipes played, Janet McAliley’s family pulled her casket of woven seagrass on a wooden wagon down a dirt path through a wild green meadow in Central Florida.

In life, McAliley was a moral pillar of Miami-Dade County: a 16-year school board member who crusaded for civil rights, the fair treatment of immigrants and many environmental causes. In death, she wanted to add to her environmental legacy. She chose to be laid to rest in what’s known as a “green burial” — in her case, at the Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery outside of Gainesville, Florida.

There would be no cremation, a process that contributes to climate change by producing as many carbon emissions as a 500-mile road trip. No embalming fluid, which seeps out of caskets and can pollute groundwater. And no concrete vault, which prevents the microbial denizens of the soil (for a time) from decomposing a body and returning it to the earth.

Instead, McAliley’s family lowered her biodegradable casket into a grave lined with palm fronds that had been dug by hand by a group of Prairie Creek volunteers who call themselves the Pick and Spade Society. Her family shared memories and placed roses on her casket. Then, to the trill of cicadas, the volunteers covered the casket with dirt and a pile of pine needles. They marked the grave with a simple brass stake that bore her name and the dates of her birth and death.

“She liked the idea that her body would just be returned to the earth and that there weren’t any chemicals involved,” said her daughter, Chris McAliley, a retired federal judge for the Southern District of Florida. “It was as kind-to-the-planet a way as she could think of to have her body disposed.”

McAliley’s grave lies in the middle of roughly 600 acres of preserved Florida wilderness, of which 40 acres are devoted to burials like hers. Since Prairie Creek’s first funeral in 2010, about 1,000 people have been buried there. Each of these graves also helps ensure that this wild corner of Florida will remain undisturbed by future development.

“Green” or “natural” burials — which sometimes happen at specialized conservation cemeteries like Prairie Creek, but can also happen at a handful of conventional lawn-and-tombstone cemeteries — have become increasingly popular over the past two decades. One in ten Americans say this is how they’d like to be buried, according to a 2023 survey from the National Funeral Directors Association.

In Florida, there are at least seven cemeteries that offer the service. Nearly all of them are in Central Florida, requiring South Florida families to drive hundreds of miles to bury their dead, producing carbon emissions along the way.

The first nearby cemetery to offer green burials, the South Florida Jewish Cemetery, opened its doors in Lake Worth in 2019 — but only to those who want a Jewish funeral. Green burial advocates, and local residents interested in the service for themselves, would like to see more cemeteries follow.

“It really would be as close to the earth as it could be if we had this right in our community,” said Chris McAliley, who told her own children after her mother’s funeral that she would like a green burial herself when the time comes. “I sure hope there will be more sites. Why would I want to make more of an impact on the planet after I’m gone?”

A bagpiper plays during a funeral service for Janet McAliley at Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery.
Courtesy of Chris McAliley

Florida at the forefront of alternative burials

Despite the limited number of green burial sites, it turns out that Florida is relatively progressive when it comes to alternative burial options.

That came as a relief to Victoria Boatman, 31, an Orlando resident who started looking into funeral options for herself in her 20s after being diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder. She wasn’t sure what she’d find.

“Florida is such a weird state that I was like, ‘We could either have all the options or we could have absolutely none,’” Boatman said. “I was really pleasantly surprised to find out that there were options for green burial.”

Florida ranks ahead of most other states in terms of its number of green burial sites, according to Lee Webster, who keeps a list of green burial sites across the US and Canada. The state’s first green burial site, Glendale Memorial Nature Preserve, which opened in the Panhandle in 2001, was one of the first “conservation” cemeteries in the U.S. — a site where burials also help protect the land from potential development.

“Florida is right up there,” said Webster, a former board member for the Green Burial Council and one of the founding members of the Conservation Burial Alliance. “Its cemeteries are really influential because they’ve been there for a long time.”

In addition to the growing number of cemeteries that handle green burials, Floridians also have a choice of techniques for body disposal.

Florida was an early adopter of alkaline hydrolysis, sometimes called water cremation, a process in which a body is dissolved in a chemical solution. A St. Petersburg funeral home was the first in the U.S. to offer the service after the state Legislature legalized it in 2011.

The state is also the home of Eternal Reefs, the first company to offer families the option to turn their loved ones’ cremated remains into artificial coral reefs.

The only alternative Florida won’t yet allow is natural organic reduction, also known as human composting, which turns bodies into soil by placing them in a sealed chamber with wood chips, straw, alfalfa and other materials that help microbes quickly transform human remains into fertilizer. Just six states have legalized the procedure, which debuted in Washington in 2019.

The only alternative Florida won’t yet allow is natural organic reduction, also known as human composting, which turns bodies into soil by placing them in a sealed chamber with wood chips, straw, alfalfa and other materials that help microbes quickly transform human remains into fertilizer. Just six states have legalized the procedure, which debuted in Washington in 2019.

“The biggest point for me wasn’t just environmental. It was also psychological,” she said. “Having a loved one die and then never reconciling that with a dead body is really harmful to the human psyche.”

Boatman wrote her wishes into her will in 2019. (If you’re considering a green burial, here’s how you, too, can plan ahead for your own funeral.)

A greener goodbye

Many of the people who run Florida’s green burial cemeteries don’t come from the funeral industry. They’re environmentalists who were drawn to the idea of green burials and conservation cemeteries as a way to cut carbon emissions and preserve land.

Laura Starkey, for instance, found out about the concept at a land conservation conference in 2006. At the time, she was looking for a way to preserve land that was once dedicated to cattle ranching on her family’s farm in Pasco County. “I saw a workshop about conservation burial grounds as a tool for land conservation,” she said. “It’s a way that these burials can help pay for the permanent protection of the land.”

Starkey’s grandfather, who founded the cattle ranch, had already sold 8,000 acres to the Southwest Florida Water Management District in the 1970s to create the Starkey Wilderness Preserve, and the family sold several thousand acres more to enlarge the park after he died in 1989. In 2016, Laura Starkey turned 41 acres of longleaf pine woods neighboring the nature preserve into the Heartwood Preserve Conservation Cemetery.

In the process, she put a conservation easement on the land that permanently prevents it from being developed. She uses the money she collects from burial fees to fund a trust that will pay for future upkeep, like controlled burns. Just as importantly, she said, she welcomed families to form lifelong emotional connections to the land where their loved ones are buried.

“On the day of the burial, people are engaging with the environment on a very deep and spiritual level that they weren’t expecting,” she said.

Or, as Glendale Memorial Nature Preserve co-founder John Wilkerson put it: “As we get more and more people buried here, the odds of politicians and Realtors breaking the place into little pieces and turning it into something else goes way down,” he said. “Everyone’s got some voters still alive in their families.”

Pallbearers carry the body of a loved one, wrapped in a shroud, through Heartwood Preserve Conservation Cemetery near Tampa, Florida.
Courtesy of Heartwood Preserve

Curbing death's carbon emissions

In addition to preserving land, green burials can also reduce the funeral industry’s contribution to climate change.

Green burials use less material than traditional burials: No one has to mix and pour concrete to form a vault, or chop down exotic lumber and ship it around the world to make luxurious caskets, or manufacture chemicals to make embalming fluids. The Green Burial Council estimates that a traditional burial produces 250 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions, which is roughly equivalent to a 300-mile trip in a typical car.

Meanwhile, a typical cremation burns natural gas to heat a body to about 1,800 degrees for around two hours, generating about 460 pounds of carbon emissions, according to a 2016 analysis from Dutch sustainability researcher Elisabeth Keijzer. That’s the equivalent of driving roughly 500 miles.

READ MORE: Meet the farmers who founded Florida’s first green burial cemetery

To be sure, the carbon footprint of a person’s burial or cremation pales in comparison to the emissions they generate in life. But collectively, the emissions from each individual funeral can add up.

About 58% of Americans now choose cremation, according to polling from the National Funeral Directors Association. That suggests that about 1.6 million of the 2.9 million Americans who died in 2019 were likely cremated — generating about 380,000 tons of carbon emissions, which is on par with the emissions from 77,000 cars over that same year.

A green burial can produce close to zero emissions, especially if the grave is dug by hand and the body is buried in a simple shroud. “With natural burial, it’s a one-step process: The body goes into the earth,” said Webster. “It’s a natural process, not an industrial one.”

Driving to service adds impact

Of course, that doesn’t count the emissions produced by mourners driving to attend green burials.

From downtown Miami, for instance, the South Florida Jewish Cemetery is a 60-mile drive north. Heartwood Preserve, the closest conservation cemetery, is a 300-mile drive. Prairie Creek is about 330 miles of highway away.

All that driving can offset the carbon emissions savings from a green burial — a fact that even green burial advocates will acknowledge.

“You have to look at the big picture of your overall footprint if everybody is going to be driving from Miami all the way north of Tampa,” said Starkey, the Heartwood Preserve founder. “That’s 300 miles each way, times however many vehicles, and the time and the expense of that.”

“But you’re also supporting an ecosystem and you’re participating in the preservation of a corner of the land,” Starkey said.

Car emissions could be reduced if there were more green burial grounds around the state, including in South Florida.

“There needs to be a green cemetery at least every 100 miles so you wouldn’t have to drive more than 50 miles to find one,” said Wilkerson, the Glendale Memorial Nature Preserve founder.

But it’s not so easy to find the real estate for even a conventional cemetery in a highly developed area like South Florida — much less a nature preserve and conservation cemetery. “Part of the issue is, you go out and try to find three to five acres somewhere in Miami that’s not underwater,” said Rabbi Jay Lyons of the South Florida Jewish Cemetery. “Good luck.”

Lyons said he’d consider opening another green burial cemetery in South Florida with no religious affiliation if he could find the land and the funding to do it.

Another option would be for more existing cemeteries to adopt a “hybrid” model, meaning that they let families decide whether they want a conventional burial with embalming, a concrete vault, and a tombstone or if they want a simpler green burial. Hybrid cemeteries like the South Florida Jewish Cemetery support both options. But all those traditional steps also are money-makers for the funeral industry.

A body wrapped in a burial shroud is covered in flowers before being lowered into a grave at Heartwood Preserve Conservation Cemetery near Tampa, Florida.
Courtesy of Heartwood Preserve

'A place you look forward to coming back to'

Many of those who have attended green burials, particularly at conservation cemeteries, say their main benefit isn’t the carbon footprint. It’s the way that saying goodbye in nature made them feel.

“I’ve been to too many funerals where you’re in a well-kept area but, you know, there’s a hole dug with an excavator and it’s just a very sterile environment,” said Jeff Snow, a Boca Raton resident who drove up to Prairie Creek in March to bury his friend Jodi.

Prairie Creek, he said, didn’t feel sterile. “It’s a beautiful setting, and you know it’s going to be beautiful like that forever because it’s part of the conservation area,” said Snow. “It’s quiet. You don’t hear any traffic…It’s super peaceful. It’s a place you look forward to coming back to.”

More importantly, it felt like the right place to lay his friend to rest. “Jodi was a teacher. She taught young children. She loved butterflies and orchids. And this green burial was certainly an extension of her,” Snow said.

And for those who have the luxury of planning their funeral ahead of time, it can be one last chance to send a message to their loved ones about the importance of protecting the planet.

“My mother died, but she was teaching me after she was gone,” said Chris McAliley. “My brothers and I just looked at each other and said, once again, mom is just inspiring us and enlightening us about a way to try to be kind to the planet that we really hadn’t thought about.”

This climate report is funded by Florida International University, the Knight Foundation and the David and Christina Martin Family Foundation in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners. The Miami Herald retains editorial control of all content.

Copyright 2023 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
  • Email
Nicolas Rivero