If you walk through a particular spot of the forest in Northern California, you may notice something different about the trees — they are all marked with a number.
“Better Place Forests is a sustainable alternative to cemeteries, where instead of a grave and tombstone, where you bury someone you love’s body, you have a family tree. And that’s where you spread the ashes of your family,” said Sandy Gibson, co-founder and CEO of Better Place Forests.
Sandy Gibson’s vision is a more natural place to visit the people you love.
“When I was 10 years old, my father died of an unexpected stroke. A year later, my mother lost a 6-year battle with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, so I spent most of my life going back to their grave and it was just never a beautiful place,” he explained.
That experience led to the creation of this space, where trees are marked with number tags and ribbons for families to choose from. The ashes of their loved ones are placed in the soil near the tree after a customized ceremony.
It’s a process Sonja Bedford went through in 2018.
“Weeks, months, when he was in hospice, it became evident that we needed to decide something,” Bedford said.
Her husband had been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.
“He immediately thought it was a great idea because it's where the Redwoods meet the ocean, both places that we really loved together,” she said. “After cremation, who wants to sit around with ashes on a shelf? Certainly not me or John.”
Bedford held a small ceremony for John and his ashes were mixed into the soil in the ground.
“I like to say the forest can really hold a lot. It can hold grief and sadness, and we recently had a family member say they just kind of gave it to the forest. They can leave it here. It has transformed through the cycles of life, and they can leave the forest more at peace,” said Gillian Nye, a memorial ceremony specialist for Better Place Forests.
Industry leaders say the idea of choosing alternative burial methods is growing.
“An ongoing trend that's been continuing recently, the last five years, but going back probably 40, is the increase in cremation,” said Jack Mitchell with the National Funeral Directors Association.
And with more awareness about sustainability, more natural options like placing ashes in the ground have gained traction.
“Ashes or cremated remains are essentially the small bone fragments that are left over after cremation,” Gibson explained. “When you mix them with soil, the water in the soil and the natural bacteria in the soil have time to break those ashes down. They become the nutrients that are part of the forest floor that nourish the trees.”
Giving back to nature at a price much less than a traditional burial.
“Depending on what city you're in, often if it’s a funeral and a burial, you're looking at $15,000 or more per person,” Gibson explained. “Our trees start as low as $3,900.”
From Northern California to Massachusetts, Illinois, and Arizona, Better Place Forests is expanding their locations to let people pick their ideal final resting place.
“All of our lives are a story. And in most stories, you remember the ending first. It’s the most important part of the story and I think this gives us a chance to write our own ending and choose something that speaks to us and is beautiful to us,” Gibson said.