What do you do if you don’t want a traditional funeral service, you don’t have a religious community to lean on, and cremation just doesn’t seem like a fitting way to honor your deceased loved one? Human composting has become popular, and biodegradable pod burials are being requested by others. In an effort to improve the dying experience, more and more people are hiring “death doulas.” Gibson has made it possible to purchase the right to scatter your ashes beneath a redwood tree.
Gibson, together with co-founders Brad Milne and Jamie Knowlton, has raised almost $12 million to create a woodland cemetery. Their initial 20-acre forest in Mendocino, California, opened this month. Families can save tens of thousands of dollars by purchasing exclusive ash-spreading rights to one of the thousands of trees on the property (private trees start at $2,900, while the rights to put ashes underneath an old redwood tree can cost up to $36,000). Better Place Forests, the duo’s venture-backed firm, buys the land and provides the development rights to a permanent land trust, ensuring the trees’ long-term safety. This method, whereby the business owns the property and a land trust owns the easement or right to develop it, is fairly well-established and has been utilized to build national parks in Hawaii and Colorado (though a future change of ownership makes it unclear if family members would always be able to visit).
However, Better Space Forests aspires to fulfill the same function that cemeteries have for centuries: to provide a peaceful place for people to hold funeral services and return to mourn the loss of loved ones. Ashes are usually packaged in a plastic bag. Gibson claims, “It’s not a pretty thing to go through.” That’s why we go out of our way to improve the situation for the whole family.
People who want their loved ones to scatter their ashes near a tree they’ve chosen (and paid for) make up the bulk of Better Place Forests’ thousands of customers. Gibson claims that some people pick trees close to the visitor center in the hopes that their loved ones will pay them a visit. Some people are seeking for a tree that is further into the forest, while others choose one that is higher up on a ridge with a view of the Pacific. It’s an alternative to a cramped cemetery where people can choose their own plot in a serene natural setting.
Seven estates in the western United States are now owned by Better Place Forests, with the intention of converting each into a memorial forest. To guarantee that only healthy trees are sold, the company employs botanists to create a comprehensive inventory of the forest, eradicate any alien species, and evaluate the health of each individual tree. A replacement tree of the same kind will be planted at no cost to you by Better Place Forests if your tree should ever die. The landscape architects and designers will use the existing clearings to construct the tourist centers, sparing as many trees as feasible.
Professional trail builders, who often work in national parks, dedicated a full month to Mendocino to create routes into the forest to make it more accessible to the public (Better Place Forests provides transportation within the forest for those in wheelchairs and is ADA-compliant). Many of these routes in that regrown forest follow the paths of the ancient skip roads that loggers used to remove the enormous redwoods.
David Fletcher, principal landscape architect at San Francisco’s Fletcher Studio and project manager for all of Better Place Forests’ properties, says, “Within the forest, we were really guided by the essence of the terrain itself.”
Even the basic concrete seats that are scattered throughout the forest’s clearings were designed specifically for this area by his team. On the contrary, this new-age cemetery was designed to make visitors feel as though they were out on a stroll in the woods. Just like trekking, but with the added feeling of entering a sacred environment, Fletcher explains.
Hikers can reach a pergola, a tunnel-like structure covered in vines, by ascending a small hill via the memory trees, which leads to an overlook of the ocean. “It’s meant to be a whole experience,” he explains, “where you’re dealing with collective memory, individual memory, and then you come upon this hill where you see the ocean, where you see the infinite.”
People can already buy trees in a forest in Santa Cruz, California, roughly an hour’s drive from San Jose. Currently, only Point Arena is accessible to the public; the firm began distributing ceremonies there in the fall of 2017 and just completed the forest’s tourist center.
Better Place Forests is a conservation initiative in addition to a means to a more beautiful funeral service. Better Place Forests not only plants additional trees for each claimed tree but also donates the development rights to land trusts that can ensure the property won’t be developed. Those who purchase the older, more expensive trees will help fund the reforestation of hundreds of trees in an area of California that was recently consumed by wildfires. Fletcher says, “They’re permanently removing 20 acres of land from the timber industry.” There’s no way that it could ever be turned into a residential area. That’s how effective this is.
Although, some consumers may be put off by the idea that investors are trying to profit from their gravesite. Some people may doubt Better Place Forests’ assurance that the memory trees they plant will never be destroyed by bulldozers. If the corporation sells the forest, the new owners will be bound by the same development restrictions as the current ones. Despite the company’s claims that the site will remain an open space and that it has established a conservation endowment to fund upkeep, there is no guarantee that a new owner will continue to allow family members access to the tree of a deceased loved one.
Thousands of families have already reserved trees, so the startup must be satisfying a need for a more eco-friendly and individualized funeral service. It’s poetic to save a tree with your remains while knowing that many are being planted in your honor at a time when conservation is becoming increasingly critical.