Ashes to ashes; dust to dust

May 11, 2013

Gainesville, Florida

By Steve Johnson

“Ashes to ashes; dust to dust.”

Its origins come from Genesis 3:19 (King James Verison): “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

We celebrate death in so many different ways. From sky burials in Tibet, to hanging coffins in ancient China, how we honor the dead is varied and changing.

In the United States and Canada, vault burials have grown in popularity since the early 1900s. With more than 19,000 funeral homes and 8,000 embalmers in the U.S. alone according to the National Funeral Directors Association.

So when Reuters contacted me about a conservation cemetery, one of four in the country, I was intrigued with the very niche market.

After more than two months of research and repeated visits to the Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery, we found a source willing to work with us to document this process. Working on such a sensitive subject, it is hard not to feel for your source. Joseph Fitzgerald died at age 47 — just days after his granddaughter was born.

There were so many stories to tell in covering this new type of funeral, but oddly enough, it wasn’t new at all. The practices of what we call in the U.S. an all-natural burial was common practice before embalming became popular during the Civil War and is still a primary practice of burials throughout the world.

To fully understand each aspect, we needed to break it up by medium.

A photo essay would show the process of burial from digging to filling. A multimedia piece would dig a little deeper into why someone would choose this option of burial. And an article could break down the complex arguments between environmentalists and the funeral industry, while still telling the narrative of the Fitzgeralds process in finding this cemetery.

Three months later, hundreds of photographs, hours of video, and dozens of pages of notes later, we had a story. I’m sure there was more than one point where my editors doubted I could accomplish all three, but (with patience) we were able to shed light on this very young, yet traditional practice.

I teach visual journalism at the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications in Gainesville, Fla. – just 20 or so miles away from this cemetery. So it was pure luck that I happened to live near one of four conservation cemeteries in the country.

What wasn’t luck was the teaching value of this story.

The stereotype for backpack journalism tends to bring out images of war zones and exotic locations, but we need to practice it even with stories that are close to home and have more generous deadlines. I was able to bring back the sensitive nature of reporting to the classroom and break down just how to manage your time with sources and at events to effectively get an article, photo essay and multimedia piece out of one story with just one journalist – a task many professionals and professors are still perfecting (myself included).

The day of the funeral was quiet and sunny with a cool breeze – Florida weather that you can only hope for when your cameras are melting in the summer.

I made my way out to the cemetery lodge to meet with the funeral director and ran into a young man, Dillon, outside. He was the son of the deceased, digging a fire pit to celebrate his father’s life following the ceremony.

After making conversation and thanking him for allowing me to document his father’s day, we proceeded to the grave site that I photographed just two days prior as they were digging it by hand.

Crunch. Crunch. The leaves were dry, and I knew audio and discretion were going to be the first of my challenges for the day. There is no way to quietly move about a funeral, but you have the attention of the attendees on the ceremony as your ultimate distraction.

The images that emerged from the entire process were well worth the anxiety of crunching my way through the shoot.

Two weeks later, I was able to share them with Joe’s family before I interviewed them about the funeral — bringing the story full circle with an audience of five generations to reflect on their day.

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