Jamie Westfall sets her smartphone on the edge of a wood frame that marks the next grave to be dug at the Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery (PCCC) outside of Gainesville.
Using a level app, she makes sure the angle is spot-on as half a dozen volunteer diggers put gloves on and choose a shovel or pickaxe to use on the morning assignment.
Westfall, 24, serves as the operations coordinator for the only conservation cemetery in the state of Florida.
PCCC is a non-profit community cemetery founded in 2007 that is operated by three staff members and a board of directors.
“We are funded entirely through donations and the payment we receive for burials,” Westfall said.
That payment is about a fifth of what traditional funeral home burials will cost a family.
According to the PCCC website, “A portion of each burial fee is committed to pay for land acquisition, protection, restoration, and management. The burial area also becomes hallowed ground, restored to its natural condition and protected forever with a conservation easement.”
To be considered a conservation cemetery the PCCC, which spans 93 acres, is certified by the Green Burial Council.
“Conservation burial and natural burial are titles certified by the Green Burial Council. Conservation burial is natural burial that goes a step further to conserve the land of the cemetery,” Westfall said.
And there are three standards that define a natural burial: There can be no embalming, no vaults, and all burial containers or shrouds must be biodegradable.
“At conservation cemeteries a portion of each burial fee is committed to pay for land acquisition, protection, restoration, and management,” Westfall said. “The burial area gets restored to its natural condition and protected forever with a conservation easement.”
Westfall took on her new position in October 2021 after volunteering as a gravedigger and learning more about the PCCC.
She said burials there have increased in numbers every year since it opened.
“In 2020 we completed 115 burials and in 2021 we completed 126 burials,” she said.
Part of the increase is because of awareness, Westfall said.
“PCCC is the final resting place for people of a wide variety of faiths and cultures,” she said.”Some of the reasons people have told us they chose PCCC include a desire to lessen their environmental impact as well as that PCCC is a more cost-effective choice.”
The fee is currently $2,000 for a body burial and $650 for the burial of cremated remains.
Families can participate in the burial process or the staff and volunteers at PCCC will prepare the site for them. Part of Westfall’s position is coordinating those volunteer digs along with watering native plantings, giving tours, handling cemetery maintenance, staying on top of invasive plant removal, and answering phone calls and emails.
She is also responsible for crafting the markers that memorialize gravesites.
“Instead of headstones we use small brass markers which we hand-stamp ourselves,” she said.
During a recent early morning grave dig, Westfall led volunteers to a site and, after the frame was set up and tools distributed, the diggers stopped for a moment to learn about who they were digging for.
A tradition before dirt is turned is to read a poem written by poet and University of Florida professor emeritus Sidney Wade titled “Gravediggers.”
The volunteers gather around and Westfall reads it from her phone starting with, “For the volunteer gravediggers of the Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery:”
We offer here our labor and our time
that others may rest soundly in this place
of moss and earth and nurture. The subtle rhymes
of lift and loss in the quickly passing embrace
of shovel blade and sand reflect the gifts
of this earth we honor as we dig together or alone.
Beetles, grasses, trees, and rain and spindrift
blossoms, flesh and spirit pass quickly along
the spinning paths all bodies follow in the arc
of time. We take our turns, we talk, and scan
the sky for birds. Soon enough it will be dark.
The cool of evening rises from the sand.
A typical dig will start at 8 a.m. and last several hours, depending on the rocks or roots that might slow down the process.
Volunteers are all ages from college students to a retired traveling surgeon. They come from many professions—an electrician, a massage therapist, a retired teacher and more—will take on the task often with music playing and a water cooler with snacks provided by the PCCC on a nearby table.
Volunteering to dig graves is how Westfall got involved.
“While I was a student, I started reading about the topic of dying and had a distant dream of someday opening my own cemetery,” she said. “My vision was to create a flower garden along a trail in the mountains somewhere where ashes could be scattered.
“Two years ago I came across a pamphlet for Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery and was amazed that something even better than I had imagined already existed. I immediately began volunteering at digs and burials.”
Westfall added, “I say ‘even better’ than my vision because as it turns out, in large quantities, cremated remains can actually be harmful to plants due to the high levels of sodium and calcium.”
Westfall says she grew up in Palm Harbor, Florida and moved to Gainesville in 2015 to attend the University of Florida where she studied Computer Engineering.
“My father and two of my sisters went to UF as well,” she said. “While in school I fell in love with the incredible nature and community I found in Gainesville and decided to stay here.”
Westfall describes a typical day in her new position.
“I might water the native plants we have planted recently, make a marker for memorializing a gravesite,” she said. “Instead of headstones we use small brass markers which we hand-stamp ourselves.”
She answers phone calls and emails about scheduling burials and tours, and performs maintenance work such as removing invasive plants like coral ardisia.
“A few times a week I help with leading digs, giving tours, and facilitating burial services,” she said.
For Westfall, the position gives her a deeper purpose.
“The thing I enjoy most about working at PCCC is that I get to do work that is incredibly meaningful to me,” she said. “Conservation burial helps fight climate change, provides a safe habitat for wildlife, and creates a peaceful environment for folks who are grieving the loss of a loved one to come be surrounded by the beauty of nature. I also love that I get to meet so many wonderful people who come out to volunteer.”
At any burial, the PCCC encourages friends and family of the deceased to participate in the digging and burial process to whatever extent is meaningful for them, Westfall said.
“I’ve witnessed firsthand how this can be a cathartic, healing activity for some,” she said.
For more information on burials at PCCC visit the website. The cemetery is part of the Alachua Conservation Trust (ACT) and is connected to the 606-acre Prairie Creek Preserve and nearby Paynes Prairie State Park’s 21,000 acres of conserved land.