Mixing conservation with death care, a new start-up offers permanently protected memorial trees that solve a slew of problems.
So here's the thing: We kind of have a corpse problem (75 million Americans will reach the life-expectancy age of 78 between 2024 and 2042). And we also have a broken "death services" market (nobody wants to bury their loved one in a lawn cemetery bordering a highway). And we also have a land-use problem (logging and development often win over forests, at a time when trees are more important than ever).
All of which is is why a new start-up called Better Place Forests is so smart.Founded by Sandy Gibson, the company is buying forests, securing their protection, and then offering plots, of sorts, where ashes can be deposited to nurture a memorial tree.
As Gibson explains: "Better Place Forests are America’s first memorial conservation forests. We buy and permanently protect forest land from logging and development, and families can have a private family tree in a permanently protected forest."
The idea came about when Gibson was visiting his parents' grave site on a busy corner in a Toronto cemetery.
“As I stood there and listened to a bus go by, and I thought about how this place wasn’t beautiful, and it was loud, and it wasn’t private, and it wasn’t a place I wanted to be," he says. "I was frustrated and wondered if there could be someplace better.”
When he heard a second bus go by, he realized there had to be a better place, and thus Better Place Forests was borne.
At present there are two locations: Point Arena, California, overlooking the mighty Pacific Ocean, complete with meadows, a ridge, and a creekside trail. There is also an 80-acre forest deep in California's Santa Cruz mountains. (More forests in different states are in the works.)
Memorial seekers have a choice of trees, including glorious coastal redwoods (which are among some of the oldest living organisms in the world), tanoaks, Douglas firs, and madrones. Customers walk through the forests to select the tree that speaks to them; and there are forest stewards to help guide them. Available trees are marked by a ribbon; once someone finds "their" tree, the ribbon is cut, which becomes a ceremony of its own.
"This now costs between $3,000 (for those who want to be mixed into the earth at the base of a small young tree or a less desirable species of tree) and upward of $30,000 (for those who wish to reside forever by an old redwood)," writes Nellie Bowles in The New York Times, "For those who don’t mind spending eternity with strangers, there is also an entry-level price of $970 to enter the soil of a community tree."
“Some people want a tree that is totally isolated, and some people really want to be around people and be part of a fairy ring,” Gibson told The Times. “Some people will come in and they’ll fall in love with a stump.”
“People love stumps,” he added, “They’ve got a lot of personality.”
When the time comes, the ashes are mixed with soil, water, and nutrients – and then they are spread in a three-by-three-foot trench at the tree's roots. A small, round plaque is then placed at the base of the tree.
The Times explains that there is also a tech option: "For an extra fee, customers can have a digital memorial video made. Walking through the forest, visitors will be able to scan a placard and watch a 12-minute digital portrait of the deceased talking straight to camera about his or her life. Some will allow their videos to be viewed by anyone walking through the forest, others will opt only for family members." Which is pretty cool – a way to animate a memorial, let the deceased live on. I know that whenever I walk through a cemetery, I read the names and dates and epitaphs, and find myself so curious about the people buried there.
Better Place isn't the first green or natural funeral model to appear (we have loads of ideas on green funerals here). It's an industry that thankfully has been growing as people are becoming more aware of the environmental strains of burial and the traditional cemetery: Materials and embalming chemicals sunk into the earth; the chemical and water needs of zillions of acres of cemetery lawn; and of course, a dwindling supply of plots in the face of an increasing number of bodies to bury.
But this idea goes beyond other green cemeteries and memorials because it is such a good way to financially support conservation, points out Nancy Pfund, an early investor. "Managing a forest is expensive, so much so that financially strained state park systems are having to turn down gifts of land," she explains. “No one has really made a big business monetizing conservation, nothing that could scale,” she said. “So a bell went off when we heard this pitch.”
Right now we need trees more than ever, and if turning forests into ersatz cemeteries is a way to fend off loggers and developers, then what could be better? Imagine if this had been conceived of long ago, and all the current cemeteries were forests instead of giant lawns – wouldn't that be something? But hey, better late than never, and I for one hope this idea becomes the new norm. It's a million times better for the planet, and a more beautiful memorial I can not imagine.
As Better Place says, they are "committed to helping people write better endings to their stories and to conserving some of the most iconic forests in North America."
For more information, head over to Better Place Forests.