Better Place Forests
Life After Death as a Tree?
Leave the Earth Better with Better Place Forests
“Selecting my tree confirms my decision that my end-of-life process is going to be empowering, a choice I am making when healthy. Picking my tree also took all the ‘doom and gloom’ we associate with death completely out of the equation”
80% of Baby Boomers now anticipate choosing cremation. Our attitudes about the “memorial ceremony” itself have also evolved. Many people now prefer a celebration of life rather than the familiar somber reckoning that is so often equated with one’s passing.
As families continue to look for more environmentally friendly and affordable options, one California-based company is gaining attention for incorporating sustainability into end-of-life planning. We interviewed several people who believe that this company, Better Place Forests, offers the ideal combination of celebration, meaning, legacy, love of life, and nature.
Better Place Forests provides memorial grounds set within thriving woodlands in California, Arizona, Illinois, Minnesota, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. With a mission “to inspire everyone to leave a meaningful legacy for the planet and the people they love,” the company offers a natural alternative to cemeteries for people who choose cremation. Individuals choose a personal “memorial tree” and when the time comes, ashes are mixed with soil and returned to the base of the tree. It’s a beautiful way to return to the earth and connect with the cycle of life. Each tree is marked with a custom inscribed plaque. The Better Place Forests staff works closely with each family to create a personalized memorial service, and friends and family are welcome to visit the forest at any time afterwards.
Like the best end-of-life plans, the process begins with a conversation, an opportunity to answer all questions about the Better Place Forests experience. Interested parties are then invited to tour the forest, either in person or virtually with a forest steward. In addition to experiencing the living forest, the forest stewards explain the unique characteristics of each section to help you or a loved one find the perfect tree.
During the customized memorial ceremony, which often includes religious readings and songs among other personal choices, the ashes are blended with the soil and then returned by family members and friends to the roots of the specific tree. Wildflower seeds are also scattered into the soil to encourage regrowth, deepening the connection to the cycle of life. The tree is then marked with a bronze plaque. Family and friends may visit the forest at any time.
“The entire memorial was very well done,” says Dwayne Brown, a self-described devout Christian and real estate broker who lives in the Greater Sacramento area. “But I was especially moved when we returned my father’s ashes mixed with soil to the earth beneath his Douglas fir. I was taught by my father to love nature and I feel every time I enter a natural setting like this one I am closer to God.”
The beauty of nature calls to people in different ways. Each person’s story of how and why they chose a Better Place Forests tree is as unique as they are.
“I chose a redwood because of what they stand for,” says Micheal Pope, CEO at Alzheimer’s Services of the East Bay in Berkeley. "But in addition to the species' strength and longevity, I selected my particular tree for its location just off a path where it is shaded by two other trees. Selecting my tree confirms my decision that my end-of-life process is going to be empowering, a choice I am making when healthy. Picking my tree also took all the ‘doom and gloom’ we associate with death completely out of the equation.”
Raised in the Bronx, Micheal attended Girl Scout camps in Maine and Vermont as a young girl. A self-described “intensely spiritual” person, she explains a funeral celebration she observed in Bali convinced her that the end of life should be a celebration of renewal and not a mournful conclusion. She first learned about Better Place Forests when researching subjects for her popular “Life is a Sacred Journey” podcast.
“My kids share my love of hiking,” she says. “I love the idea they could come hike by me, bring my grandchildren and have a picnic. It’s so much more exciting than searching out my headstone among thousands of others in a traditional cemetery. I also plan to have my pets’ ashes mixed with my own, a continuation of my care for them. They are rescue animals and I will always protect them.”
Better Place Forests was newly established when Ms. Pope first spoke about the company on her podcast. Today there are 7 forests located across the country in Berkshires, MA, Litchfield Hills, CN, St. Croix Valley MN, Rock River, IL, Flagstaff, AZ, and 2 in California--Point Arena in Mendocino County and the newly opened Yosemite Gateway Forest, just 30 miles from the Big Oak Flat entrance of the park. These memorial forests are also economical with options less than half the cost of a traditional casket burial.
“Sheila and I enjoyed many incredible moments,” Spence says, “like when a herd of elephants surrounded our vehicle while on safari in Botswana. But there were also many times when we would walk in the woods, sit on a rock and listen to the quiet of the forest. I believe being laid to rest within the freedom of the forest is a continuation of life, what I like to call the ultimate pay it forward.”
Mr. Brown says his family chose the Douglas fir for its location, a singular tree in a small clearing surrounded by tall redwoods that represented his father’s presence as a man who stood out among giants. “He always had people around him to teach and instruct. [The tree] was perfect – off the path enough, but you could see it as you rounded the corner. It stood out just like my father.”
Mr. Brown remains impressed with his father’s memorial, calling it the finest he has ever attended. The visitor’s center was used for the small gathering that included an audio-visual component, remembrances and a service led by the pastor of his father’s church. The processional then walked through the forest to the tree, where his father’s ashes would be returned to the ground.
“My mother, who did most of the planning, said it could not have been easier to work with the Better Place Forests staff, from the memorial to the little picnic we shared on the site,” recalls Mr. Brown. “The whole experience is such a wonderful alternative that I have changed my perspective and am thinking of doing the same one day. I hope it becomes more mainstream.”
Like Ms. Pope and Mr. Brown, Spencer Rice, who likes to go by Spence, feels a “deep connection when getting into the woods and mountains to explore nature.”
He and his “Bride” Sheila were married for 29 years before her passing. A lifelong airline industry employee, Spence traveled the world with Sheila from their home in Ann Arbor, visiting six of seven continents. Spence felt that a traditional Western burial never suited what he sees as Sheila’s and his ‘continuation of life.’ When his daughter, Jana, and his son-in-law told him about Better Place Forests, he decided to look into it.
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“I was especially moved when we returned my father’s ashes mixed with soil to the earth beneath his Douglas fir. I was taught by my father to love nature and I feel every time I enter a natural setting like this one I am closer to God.”
“I believe being laid to rest within the freedom of the forest is a continuation of life, what I like to call the ultimate pay it forward.”
Better Place Forests takes ‘paying it forward’ seriously. They protect land from development and engage with local land trusts in this work. The company is committed to supporting the local communities where their forests are located and hires local forest stewards, forest technicians and arborists to help maintain and care for the land. To help with critical reforestation efforts, Better Place Forests partners with the nonprofit One Tree Planted to plant 25 to 400 saplings, called Impact trees, in honor of every customer who reserves a memorial tree. In 2019, Better Place Forests helped to plant over 10,000 Impact Trees across America which, when mature, will sequester 3,630,000 pounds of CO2. In 2020 the goal was 50,000 trees, but they exceeded that goal with 81,800 Impact Trees planted across the country. Choosing Better Place Forests means helping to protect open spaces for generations to come.
Unlike Ms. Pope and Mr. Brown’s trees, Sheila’s tree actually picked him, says Spence. “I had found a couple of attractive trees, but then I looked at one that was numbered 3170. Since our anniversary is March 17, the decision was immediately made and that became our tree.”
Like Ms. Pope and Mr. Brown, Spence lauds the exceptional care he received from the staff at Better Place Forests.
“The big selling point in my eyes is the team they have assembled. They have the right team in place to help you through the most traumatic experience of your life,” he says, adding, “At the end of the day it is a highly personal choice, the way you are done with this phase of life. Better Place Forests take care of the woods, the woods take care of the earth and the earth takes care of the humans.”
Visit the Better Place Forests website to learn more.
A bird's eye view of Better Place Forests St. Croix Valley
Better Place Forests Flagstaff features views of the Kachina peaks
Micheal chose her tree in the Highland Ridge section of Better Place Forests Point Arena
ike every memorable story, the ending should leave a meaningful memory. So it’s no surprise then, that when it comes to the end of life, Americans are increasingly thinking about how to leave a lasting legacy. For example, according to a recent study, nearly
Micheal chose her tree in the Highland Ridge section of Better Place Forests Point Arena
“Selecting my tree confirms my decision that my end-of-life process is going to be empowering, a choice I am making