In the old Florida woods where she grew up, in what is now the Trinity area of New Port Richey (just a short drive west of Wesley Chapel), Laura Starkey has set 41 acres of land aside as the Heartwood Preserve Conservation Cemetery, adjacent to the 18,000-acre Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Preserve.

On Nov. 4, Heartwood Preserve celebrated its one-year anniversary in business with refreshments and cake, an artist providing temporary henna tattoos and activities for the family.

In the year since it opened — as the first conservation cemetery in the Tampa Bay region, and one of just a handful in the state — Heartwood Preserve has offered environmentally-friendly options for people looking for a more natural burial.

“The word ‘Conservation’ in our name means that not only are we are providing a natural burial option for those who don’t want all the fancy bells and whistles of a modern burial with an expensive casket and vault, but we’re also really contributing to the permanent conservation of this ecosystem,” explains Laura, who is the cemetery’s founder and executive director. “We are both literally and figuratively becoming part of this land.”

Laura and Heartwood Preserve manager Diana Sayegh explain that, first and foremost, the cemetery is about conserving the precious longleaf pine flatwoods and cypress dome wetlands ecosystems of the preserve.

“We invite people to come and take a walk, hike and get some fresh air,” Diana says. “You can park for free, use our picnic benches, and experience nature. There are woodpeckers, owls and butterflies, and we have free events, such as silent meditation walks, yoga and even frog-listening events. This place is gorgeous, and we want the community to experience it.”

Diana says the fact that Heartwood Preserve allows pre-planning sets it apart from other conservation cemeteries.

“Like making a will, pre-planning for your cremation or burial is a gift to your family,” says Diana. “Your family is not left with the burden of the cost or the decision making. They have peace of mind for when that time comes.”

She continues, “It is a cemetery, and it’s sad, but it’s not typical. It’s natural and beautiful and serene and peaceful.”

Heartwood Preserve Conservation Cemetery is located at 4100 Starkey Blvd. Visitors are always welcome when the gates are open — Mon.-Sat., 9:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m., and 11 a.m.–4:30 p.m. on Sun. Events that are open to the public, including yoga, educational activities and more, are listed on the events page of Heartwood Preserve’s website at For more info, call (727) 376-5111.

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