Meet the farmers who founded Florida’s first green burial cemetery
John and Bill Wilkerson never thought they’d be funeral directors.
Before they founded the Glendale Memorial Nature Preserve, Florida’s first green burial cemetery, the brothers were growing a seed crop called chufa on their father’s 350-acre farm 10 miles north of Defuniak Springs, in the center of the Florida panhandle, midway between Tallahassee and Mobile, Alabama. They inherited the land in 2000 after their mother died.
“Our parents got us to agree not to break it into little pieces,” Wilkerson said. “They did not leave us the bazillion dollars drawing interest to pay the trust fund, lawyers and the tax man.”
As the Wilkerson brothers were searching for a way to hold onto the family farm, a friend told them about Ramsey Creek Preserve, the first “conservation cemetery” in the U.S. Founded in South Carolina in 1998, Ramsey Creek was committed to simple burials, preserving the local ecosystem, and using its status as a cemetery to protect its 33-acre burial site from future development. The cemetery’s sustainable burials cut down on the carbon emissions that contribute to climate change.
Ramsey Creek kicked off the green burial movement that has spawned scores of eco-friendly cemeteries across the U.S. over the past two decades. But the Wilkersons were the very first people to create a conservation cemetery in Florida. It became the second in the U.S. when they opened Glendale Memorial Nature Preserve in 2001.
At first, Wilkerson said, state regulators pushed back on their plan to turn the family farm into a natural burial ground. “They just kept telling us no,” he said. But the brothers kept pushing. “Basically, we were ignorant country boys who had a cause and we kept asking ‘Why?’ and ‘Can you show us the statute?’” Eventually, with the help of some lawyers, they won over the regulators and got approval.
Still, there was a lot to learn. The brothers had buried their parents on the property, but didn’t have any experience in the funeral industry.
“We’ve gone through a learning curve just to work out the details of how to actually do it,” Wilkerson said, “how to dig a grave, how to make sure it’s big enough, how to get the casket in the ground, or more often, how to get a person in the grave with dignity using just a sheet or the clothes they died in.”
The Wilkersons created a grid system to keep track of the grave sites and learned to melt down bits of brass scraps into metal stakes for grave markers. Meanwhile, they planted longleaf pine trees and other native plants in places they and their father had cleared for crops decades earlier.
“We had known for years that stirring dirt and spraying chemicals is not earth friendly,” Wilkerson said. “We had spent our lives doing that, pretty much.”
But now they had a chance to undo some of their own work. “We’re making an attempt to turn it back into its pre-white man state,” he said.
So far, the Wilkerson brothers have buried 159 bodies on their property. “We’ve got millionaires and we’ve got paupers. We’ve got Bible thumpers and we’ve got pagans and we’ve got atheists,” said John. “We’ve got a little bit of everybody.”
The cemetery’s landmarks are as eclectic as the people who are buried there. To find the place, the Glendale website directs visitors to turn off Highway 83 when they see a dirt road flanked by a pair of nuclear missile nose cones, which the brothers bought from a military surplus store for $75 some time in the 1990s.
At the end of the road is the wooden house where the brothers live, which doubles as an office. The building is surrounded by hulking metal sculptures made from spare farm equipment parts, which the brothers call “rustasauruses.” The first rustasaurus features a hot water tank, pieces of an antique Coca Cola machine, a rusty spring, brass doorknobs, and part of a plow twisted into the shape of a large chicken.
"Everybody’s got to die. If I personally can help with that process in some fashion, then that’s my reward."John Wilkerson
The cemetery’s rustic setting can be off-putting at first for some guests. John Wilkerson remembers a family from Orlando that showed up for a burial in the middle of a thunderstorm in the early days of the cemetery. He waved their cars around the house to the back porch, where they could step inside without getting too wet.
“We have chickens roaming around in the yard and there was brand-new, fresh chicken sh** on the porch,” Wilkerson said. “These folks get out of their car and there were a couple of daughters who had elaborate makeup on, high-heeled shoes, the whole big city nightclub get-up.”
“And one of them stepped in the chicken sh** and turned to her mother and said said, ‘Mom, I can’t do this.’”
But the family stayed, and after a while the rain let up and the burial began. Eventually, Wilkerson said, “these two girls with the high-heeled shoes and the makeup and fancy dresses were shoveling mud onto their dead father and laughing and crying. And at the end of the event, they said, ‘This is the niftiest thing I could ever imagine.’”
The Wilkerson brothers are now in their 70s, but they plan to keep running the cemetery for as long as they can — and then turn the work over to a non-profit board of people they trust to run the day-to-day work of burials.
Although it’s a far cry from farming, they’ve fallen in love with the job. “Everybody’s got to die,” John Wilkerson said. “If I personally can help with that process in some fashion, then that’s my reward.”
This climate report is funded by Florida International University, the Knight Foundation and the David and Christina Martin Family Foundation in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners. The Miami Herald retains editorial control of all content.