Virtual Arrival at the Cemetery · Hannah Suzanna · MFA, Digital + Media 2021
Imagine you’re in north-central Florida. It feels like it has been over 100ºF out for weeks. It’s humid. It’s tick season. Someone you love was just admitted to hospice. All of a sudden you are navigating death planning, which… said mildly, can be challenging—a perfect concoction of tricky-to-figure-out logistics piled generously on top of all-the-emotions-at-once. However, if you are in the southeast of the United States there is a body disposition option available that is not easily found everywhere—conservation burials.
Conservation burials go beyond the standards of natural burial—no vaults, no embalming, only biodegradable burial materials—by promising to forever protect the land where burials take place. Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery (PCCC) is a non-profit community cemetery that borders Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park. The 93 acres that sit between Micanopy, Rochelle, and Gainesville, Florida, look nothing like a standard U.S. cemetery.
Walking down PCCC’s Kathy Cantwell Trail you would think you were in a state park—that is, until you noticed mounds of recently turned soil cocooned in pine needles, some of which are covered in carefully laid flowers. In partnerships with Alachua Conservation Trust and Alachua County, Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery restores land by removing invasive or overly-hearty species to preserve legacy species such as live oaks and hickory trees. Unlike standard contemporary cemeteries, PCCC is a place where wildlife and humans abound. There are deer spotted on graves, gators in cypress ponds, people walking through the meadow or seeking shade in the woods, and community members who come to help staff dig graves.
Of course, that description is representative of the cemetery before COVID-19. The cemetery seems to be operating as usual for the most part—with fewer people allowed on-site, fewer attendees permitted at funerals, and only staff allowed at burials if the deceased died from coronavirus. There are still eagles flying and large banana spiders making equally large webs. My summer looks markedly different than what I imagined. Instead of being in Florida helping to dig graves, maintain the land, and doing in-person outreach to organizations, I am in Providence.
I started work at PCCC three weeks ago and was nervous because my plan to be in Gainesville, FL in person this summer had been swiftly eradicated by COVID-19. I wasn’t going to meet my supervisor Freddie, the executive director, or the other staff members, Sarah and Carlos, in person. How would I connect with them? Would the experience “work” without me being physically present to dig graves and assist with burials? I worried I would get stuck in an eddy of administrative tasks and lose my link to the stories of people being naturally buried close to ponds filled with cypress and gators; to the story of my dad hoping (to the point of expecting) that he’ll die on the path between the family’s Quonset hut and the rocky shore of the Pacific. For the first five days, I had a spike in anxiety—the kind that clouds my day, leaving me overwhelmed by the uncertainty of new situations, and putting me right to sleep. This was not the beginning I had wanted. However, through the staff members’ graciousness, I have become grounded—even if my soil is made from zoom meetings and phone calls instead of clay, nurse logs, and earthworms.
I am now conducting virtual outreach for PCCC. We are trying to figure out how, in the middle of a pandemic, to reach out to end-of-life organizations. We want people to know that there are affordable, sustainable burial practices that offer the ceremony of their choice. However, our primary goal is to provide details on each option so families can make the best choice for whatever their situation may be.
That’s when I think of my dad.
When I told my dad about PCCC, he asked if he could get buried there before quickly backtracking—wanting instead to naturally decompose on our property. Many people who hear about Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery wish they had known about the cemetery when a loved one of theirs died. If you haven’t researched your end of life wishes, it is easy in our country to believe that embalming is legally required and expensive caskets are the only option. However there are many body disposition options, of which the nine conservation cemeteries in the U.S. are just one— body composting, alkaline hydrolysis, and donation to forensic anthropology sites are a few alternatives.
I am hopeful that this summer I will find effective avenues of outreach for PCCC, so people can choose body disposition options in alignment with their values. I am optimistic that I will continue to learn more about different ways to take care of dead bodies and the environmental, social, and financial implications of each. I’m curious about how being more open to different death practices will impact my thinking around what I want for my own body and what will happen to my family’s bodies. Where’s the form to make the small canyon, below my dad’s house, where the vultures feed, a conservation cemetery? That’s where my dad wants his body. I wish it was that easy.
I keep seeing myself as the third point in a triangle, opposite to two places I have not gone this summer—my dad’s house, Raven’s Roost, in Humboldt County, California and the cemetery in Alachua County, Florida (although I’m still holding out hope for a site visit at the end of August). There’s this thread that I can’t quite grasp yet, that is spun from bodies lovingly decomposing into the earth and blackberry brambles and soul-deep humidity, that connects the three locations. This summer will also be an attempt to expose these connections by looking at COVID-19 cases in all three locations, interviewing people in Florida and at home, and collecting colors from each place and examining the stories those hues tell. Maybe the overlap in color will reveal the relationships I am searching for.
Additional Death Positive Links:
End Well Live with Ladybird Morgan, RN, MSW, Executive Director of Humane Prison Hospice Project