Brothers plan cemetery for 'green' burials

Published: Thursday, January 2, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 2, 2003 at 12:54 a.m.
GLENDALE - C.O. and Laura Wilkerson made it clear they wanted simple burials when they died. No funeral home. No embalming. No fancy caskets. Just pine boxes.
They also wanted their two sons to preserve the family farm that includes ponds, streams and woodlands in Glendale, a hamlet of 150 north of DeFuniak Springs in the Florida Panhandle.
"Boys, this is a beautiful piece of property, please don't let it become a mobile home park," John Wilkerson, 54, recalled his parents saying.
He and brother William Wilkerson, 53, are trying to honor both wishes by turning the 350-acre farm into a nature preserve doubling as Florida's first - the nation's second - cemetery solely for environment-friendly "green" burials.
State regulators, however, may stand in the way of plans for Glendale Memorial Nature Preserve.
The Wilkersons want to prohibit embalming and vaults. Caskets would be biodegradable. Markers would be small natural stones. Native wildflowers and wiregrass would make mowing, pesticides and herbicides unnecessary.
"Adding organic material back to the earth in a nonpolluted form is what sustains life itself," said David Schroeder, an Augusta, Ga., landscape architect who is doing the preserve's master plan.
A green burial also would save money, John Wilkerson said. He figures it would cost no more than $2,500, including plot and wooden coffin. That's about half the average price for a funeral in the United States, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.
The concept appeals to retired Detroit auto worker Ford Sims, 67, of Destin. He hopes Glendale will be his final resting place so his six children will not have to spend their inheritance to bury him.
"I've learned that it's fairly expensive to just die," Sims said. "From my perspective, if you put me six feet under in a gunny sack, I'm happy."
The Wilkerson brothers abided by their parents' wishes when their father died in 1996 and their mother three years later. Both had green burials in the Glendale Presbyterian Church's cemetery, surrounded on three sides by their farm.
Positive reaction from family and friends prompted more research that led the brothers to Memorial Ecosystems, which runs the nation's first green burial cemetery on the Ramsey Creek Preserve at Westminster, S.C.
The company was founded by Dr. Billy Campbell, a physician, and his wife, Kimberley, a native of England, which has about 100 green burial cemeteries.
The Wilkersons consulted the Campbells and then hired Schroeder, who wrote his master's thesis at North Carolina State University on ecologically sustainable cemeteries. His design will be part of an application to the Florida Board of Funeral and Cemetery Services.
Phillip Coleman, executive director of the Funeral Cemetery Alliance of Florida, a trade association, doubted the board would accept burials without liners to keep graves from caving in as bodies and coffins decay.
"It's just a maintenance nightmare," said Coleman, a former cemetery owner from Miami. "Their concept sounds good, but it's not practical."
Coleman said the vaults prevent visitors from being injured by falling into sinking graves. Schroeder, however, said conventional cemeteries want liners for another reason.
"The lawn mowers can't go over that little divot as nicely, so they require you to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on these cement vaults," he said.
Schroeder said embalming is a hazard because toxic fluids can leak from graves and pollute ground water. Coleman contended the chemicals are too diluted to harm the environment.
State board chairman Greg Brudnicki, who is in the cemetery business in Panama City, questioned whether a small, rural community could meet a state requirement to show a need for the cemetery. John Wilkerson said it would attract clientele from a 100-mile radius.
Brudnicki also said embalming may be necessary for bodies that are viewed to prevent the spread of disease. The Wilkersons maintain state law permits refrigeration instead.
"Everybody's got access to an ice chest full of ice," John Wilkerson said. "Put it in some plastic bags and pack it under grandpa."
Neither brother has children. They plan to give the preserve to a nonprofit corporation with a stipulation they and their wives can live out their lives there.
The Wilkersons also would be able to farm and harvest timber from parts of the land as needed to support themselves. They grow and sell seeds for chufa, a tuber used as wildlife feed.
The brothers also want to copy Memorial Ecosystems by putting aside 10 percent of profits for maintenance, 10 percent for buying more land and 5 percent for watershed management.
For that reason, they want to seek an exemption from state requirements for a $5,000 application fee and $50,000 maintenance fund with 10 percent of every plot sale also going into the fund.
The requirements are in state law and cannot be waived unless the Legislature changes it, said Timothy Wheaton of the state Bureau of Funeral and Cemetery Services. He doubted lawmakers would do so.
"We have too many problems with care and maintenance," Wheaton said.
The brothers have hired a lawyer and may take their case to the Legislature.
"We're going to do it somehow," John Wilkerson said. "If we have to play the state game 100 percent, we'll do so."

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