A cemetery rarely makes anyone’s list of “interesting places to visit.” Many cemeteries feature no trees at all, and little if any shrubbery.
Fortunately, a few are intriguing, even thought-provoking. Among Florida’s best: the Key West Cemetery; Ortona Cemetery, on State Road 78 in Glades County, Fla.; and the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation Cemetery in the Everglades in southeastern Hendry County. All are historic. All feature, for the most part, the traditional gravestones and markers, concrete vaults and manicured (sort of) grass.
About 18 miles southeast of Gainesville is a cemetery of a vastly different sort. Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery takes some work to find. For example, among the directions to the cemetery is this: “Turn left at the mailbox labeled 7204.” The final road — unpaved, very bumpy, desolate — leading to the burial ground is called, appropriately, Cemetery Lane.
I drove about a mile down Cemetery Lane, to the end. At that point, a sign warns that vehicles can proceed no further. So I parked and began exploring.
The ambience is tranquil: Dozens of cicadas were chirping, large dragonflies appeared periodically, and crows cawed. At one point, a nearby armadillo, foraging for food, ignored my obvious presence.
Inside the 93-acre cemetery lie 423 people who decided that they would spend eternity in an unconventional manner. No embalming fluid is used, no burial vaults allowed, and all graves are dug by hand. The departed is put into a biodegradable container (or urn, if cremated) and lowered into his or her final resting place.
This method affects the environment far less than the usual methods, according to Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery’s figures: Each year in the U.S., burials use 64,500 tons of steel; 1.6 million tons of concrete; and 827,000 gallons of formaldehyde embalming fluid.
Most graves aren’t obvious
The Prairie Creek graves are not necessarily easy to find. Decorations, if any, are minimal and all-natural. No artificial man-made markers are allowed except for a short, thin pink ribbon.
The most obvious marker I saw (photo below) was a cross, made of two fresh pieces of wood and bearing the nickname (intentionally blurred out) of the recently deceased man lying beneath.
To find most of the graves, you’ll need to go some distance into the forest areas. I highly recommend sturdy shoes, long pants and a long-sleeve shirt.
The full name of each person, as well as the dates of birth and death, are inscribed on a small brass disc pinned to the top of each grave.
On some of the older graves (the cemetery was established in 2007), the “markers” — usually sticks, or short logs — have begun to degrade. So they’re not easily visible from a distance.
Visibility is limited
The cemetery grounds consist mainly of deep forests, with some open green meadows. Any sunlight that penetrates the canopy inside the forest is mottled, at best. A fast-approaching thunderstorm soon eliminated that mottled light, and when I could see the not-so-distant lightning bolts, even through the tall, lush trees, I decided to leave.
Driving back, through heavy rain, along Cemetery Lane to SE County Road 234, I had much to ponder.
For more information, visit prairiecreekconservationcemetery.org.