I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to go to the cemetery at all due to the pandemic, but everything came together in the last few weeks of the fellowship. I ended up being able to get free housing from a friend of the cemetery (thanks Mary!). I stayed in a mother-in-law unit on the edge of a beautiful turtle filled pond, 20 minutes from Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery (PCCC).
The first day I arrived, I participated in a burial. Being a helper at a funeral instead of one of the mourners was strikingly different, of course. It was not my grief. I followed the lead of the cemetery staff members as they helped to load the shrouded body onto the burial cart, assisted the family to the plot, helped to lower the body into the grave, and with aid from the loved ones buried the body.
The cemetery was quiet while I was there, in comparison to having two burials per week since February (higher than their usual frequency). There was one burial the day I arrived and one the day before I left. I was able to help dig a grave the morning I started my drive back up to Providence.
Everyone at the cemetery was incredibly supportive. They consistently provided me with images, helped me to collect audio samples, collected bones of wildlife found on the site, and allowed me to interview them. I was able to talk to a board member who had a family member buried in the cemetery and the head of Alachua Conservation Trust, who collaborates with the cemetery to restore the land. I talked with Freddie, the executive director and one of the founders who, when he was dissatisfied with his body disposition options, created Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery. He told me about the origin story of PCCC. The first burial was a woman, Kathy Cantwell, who was involved in the cemetery planning and was an active community member in Gainesville. Carlos told me about the different areas in the cemetery, the wetlands where burials are prohibited, the shady woods which is the domain of mosquitos, and the bright meadow where black-eyed Susans bloom and bats fly at night. Sarah gave me the no-nonsense details how how things were run, how the cemetery has to work with families, how the locations of graves are recorded. The cemetery staff, board, and collaborators helped me more generously than I could have ever asked.
As for where this will take me next? I recently found another site of interest—the abandoned parking lot by Urban Greens Co-op. I met up with a friend to test a H1 recorder and we ended up wandering to the lot. He regularly would pause by and comment on other crack-filled plains of asphalt, so on this nigh I interviewed him about why he was interested in the sites. He said it was dystopian and a sign of natures ability to transmute, from man-made structures popping up constantly to sprouts breaking through once smooth cement. Later I went back and filmed the wind blowing through plants.
I think there’s a relationship between Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery, The Raven’s Roost, and this abandoned lot. I think I’ll have to consult my colors and my tarot to figure it out.
Here’s a silly preview I made to introduce myself to the new members in my department:
In addition to investigating death through the environmental lens of the site, I also spent time interviewing my dad about what he wants for his own death. This conversation was hard, but not because of anticipatory grief, or because we haven’t broached the subject of his death before. Quite the contrary. My dad would make light of his own death while I was growing up, in order to address the reality without, hopefully, making the topic something I feared. He’s told me to taxidermy his body and mount his head on a plaque like a talking trout trophy so that whenever someone walk’s by a phrase, pre-recorded in his voice, we be shouted at them. Currently, he would like to be rolled off of the path between my family’s home and the beach to decompose naturally and be eaten by animals. He doesn’t care too much though, being cremated and scattered in the ocean with our other family members’ remains would also suffice.
The challenging part when thinking about death in my family always is about logistics. Which is sad, as one part of my brain can separate out the importance of someone dying from the importance of interpersonal squabbles. However, a strange (and disturbing) part of grief in our society has to do with property ownership. Our family’s house, The Raven’s Roost, is a quonset hut with its own strange mythology. It was a WWII aircraft hanger 40 miles inland before, so the story goes, Edgar Allen Poe’s nephew moved it to it’s current location on the coast. My great grandparents, on my Opa’s side, purchased it when their landlord decided to sell in the 70s. As the primary property of a family without a large income, figuring out how to maintain and care for both the land and the house can bring up a large amount of stress.
Down the hill though is a different world. The path down to the Pacific goes past blackberry brambles and ferns, under trees and beside creeks. It opens up just above the beach to an area called “The Flat Space” a clover covered valley filled with wildflowers and multiple artichoke varieties that a friend of my dad’s gave to him.
The whole family loves this home, and yet it seems sometimes too unwieldy, like the family dynamics are too strained to come together to take care of it. To make it a comfortable place for my Oma, my dad, and probably my uncle, to age and to die. And will it be manageable for my cousin’s and I to keep once it’s in our hands or will it be too full of it’s own holes, too much tax, too overrun with mouldering books and old mattresses?
Everyone tells met to separate myself from this stress, that it’s far off, that it’s not my responsibility, that it’s just the material world. These arguments make sense, and I can apply them to other areas of my life, but my connection to this upside-down halfpipe of a home is incredibly strong.
Beyond the personal, understanding the societal context of death is also important — particularly recognizing that racial disparities occur around death, as well as in life. Due to bodies being treated poorly by white funeral directors, Black funeral homes became a trusted source within Black communities. No matter what someone had faced during life, these funeral homes would treat the body with the respect it was due. Outside of working with the cemetery and my own personal investigations, I also participated in a book club put on by The Collective for Radical Death Studies about mass death and social justice. Some focuses included memorialization (Who is it for? Who does it benefit?) and the politics of grief (the interplay of grief and activism, and different reasons why grieving would be shared publicly or kept private).
While I was helping with PCCC’s presentation, another university student studying conservation cemeteries, and who attended one of our events, gave two source about disparities within death toward Black people and Black death rituals:
The Disappearance of a Distinctively Black Way to Mourn
By Tiffany Stanley
‘Ours is a Business of Loyalty’: African American Funeral Home Owners in Southern Cities
By Beverly Bunch-Lyons
Additionally, there is a video called:
Why Are Black & White Funeral Homes STILL Separate?
By Caitlin Doughty in conversation with Dr. Kami Fletcher, president of The Collective for Radical Death Studies
It is also important to note conservation’s racism, particularly toward indigenous peoples, which is highlighted in the article:
Environmentalism’s Racist History
By Jedediah Purdy
For Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery (PCCC), I called hospital chaplains and hospice organizations in Alachua County to see if they would be interested in a staff presentation about PCCC and different body disposition options that many people are unaware of. The cemetery is in an interesting place where more people are tuning into their presence, both due to rising awareness of environmental death practices and due to an increase of death planning as a result of COVID-19. This is leading to them getting more reservations for burial plots at the cemetery, but not the same rate of increase of burials (although burial rate has gone up as well). If the reservation rate stays high, particularly for people who will be alive for 30-50 more years, the cemetery will cease to be a resource for at-need burials. This would be unfortunate because, in addition to being environmentally supportive, PCCC offers the most affordable burial option in the area — only $2000 for the plot and burial. Even with funeral home expenses, someone can have a burial for easily less than $4000 which, while in my opinion should be covered by social programs for everyone, is still strikingly lower than the national average $8000–$10,000.
Because of this, the cemetery wants to reach local end of life organizations who are working with individuals and families who are likely to have a death soon. However, cold calling for a staff presentation was ineffective. In talking with one of the cemetery’s board members, who also is a lead nurse in a local hospital, she explained that medical workers are being asked to manage their usual tasks as well as new COVID-19 protocols. Scheduling an additional meeting for staff is unrealistic. However, through doing the outreach more organizations became at least passingly familiar with Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery, which will hopefully translate to more of their clients becoming informed about the cemetery and make it easier for the cemetery to connect in the future.
The most effective form of outreach was inviting people who had already expressed interest in the cemetery to one-off presentations, virtually hosted by PCCC itself. Those invited included funeral home workers, cemetery volunteers who also work in medicine, board members, university students researching conservation burials, and community members. At the end of the presentations we expressed interest in presenting for more groups, and received leads for future outreach. If I had had more time there I would have worked with them on adapting this presentation for continuing education units required to maintain medical licenses such as nursing. This would have required adding a layer of granularity regarding where different body disposition options were available locally, as well as more precision around pricing and environmental impacts for lesser known options (such as donating to a forensic body farm or liquid cremation).
Since the second week of August I’ve been able to work in person twice per week on certain work that cannot leave the SRLP office. Since staff are on a staggered schedule, I have been able to take safety measures including working in a private separately ventilated room.
Though it absolutely changes the relationship to my work and the scope of my involvement, working in person while adhering to important safety measures to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 limits my ability to build connections with my supervisors, other staff, and community members. This work is so community and consensus based that this has been a challenging aspect of our reality for the entire organization.
My supervisors have graciously offered me numerous professional development resources including sending me to the Groundswell Fund’s Grassroots Organizing Institute virtual convening where I took part in workshops about digital organizing, mutual aid, updates from movement organizations around the country, and training on direct action.
As a part of the Shelter Organizing Team’s Campaign for Safe Shelter, I have been working on our correspondence with stakeholders to follow up on demands for improving the conditions for trans and gendernonconforming (TGNC) people in shelter. As with any organizing strategy, at some point you must take a step back and reassess the efficacy of your action. Moving past one year of correspondence with city agencies, the Shelter Organizing Team is reassessing and noticing that staying at the table and keeping a passive engagement is not bringing the results that we need to end the systematic harm perpetuated against TGNC people.
My involvement has continued on the report based on the work and experiences of the Prisoner Advisory Committee, and I have been able to contribute in a writing capacity by helping to re-evaluate and re-write the policy recommendations to make them align better with SRLP’s abolitionist and non-compromising agenda.
With all of this work, I find that my perspective and training as an artist with a RISD education has served me most in my eye and intuition for narrative. We are working with the very personal realities of trauma, resilience, and lived experience, and it can be difficult to hold the individual and their narrative experience when trying to reach policymakers and potential allies. Although the realities may be incommunicable, it is my responsibility as a storyteller to begin to bring these realities out of the abstract.