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Life Forest redefines traditional burial

Every once in a while, we get asked, can you turn cremated remains into a tree. The answer is yes. Life Forest is a unique cemetery nestled in Hillsborough, NH, located next to conservation land with hiking trails and swimming creeks. CSNH’s arrangers discuss Life Forest with families that choose cremation but also seek to be part of the environment. At Life Forest, trees replace headstones.

Life Forest is vast and  sits on about 13 acres of sustainable land next to 60 acres of conservation area. The cremation burial spots are at least 50-square-feet to accommodate entire families (including pets). Life Forest uses burial urns that don’t damage the existing ecosystem.

If planning ahead, you and your loved ones choose a tree for your site. Tree options include but aren’t limited to:

  • Cherry
  • Hydrangea
  • Sourwood
  • Birch
  • Spruce
  • Pine
  • Redbud
  • Elm

Options at Life Forest range from $3,500 to $6,500, depending on the tree.

Planting the seed

Mel Bennett devised the concept for Life Forest and  envisioned it as an alternative to traditional cemeteries. When Mel was a child, her mother told her that when she died she wanted to become a tree. This was in the early 1980s, when cremation wasn’t nearly as popular as today. Mel thought the whole idea of becoming a tree was ridiculous at the time.

But, life tosses surprises our way. At age 50, Mel’s Mom became ill and was mostly confined to a bed for the next 10 years until she died.

“She was going to live the good life. It didn’t happen,” Mel said. “She couldn’t speak. What she lost was so epic. And, I lost not only her, I lost the hopes that I had for her. So, the idea here is being able to have that space where you can place those hopes.”

Mel placed her mother’s urn in the cabinet while figuring out what to do with her mother’s cremated remains.

“Every time I opened the door, I was like, ‘Hi, Mom. I’m just getting the turkey tray,” she said.

Mel didn’t want to plant the remains under a tree at her current home in Manchester, because she planned to retire on a beach someday. And what if she traveled? Who’s going to water “Mom?” It got her thinking about a private piece of land, protected, where she could get a landscaper to take care of things.

“This is a little bit too much. I’m a minimal means person. I can’t take that on,” she said.

Perpetual protection

But the idea kept churning and she talked about it with the different people she met, including a friend who adopted a child from the same orphanage in China as Mel did. John H. O’Neil, a realtor, was intrigued, and had the wherewithal to help Mel locate the right piece of property for her vision. They are now business partners at Life Forest.

Life Forest is a legal cemetery, meaning any cremated remains buried there are protected. No one can purchase the land to cut down the trees. People buried there are there forever. That’s what Mel wanted, a space in nature where you could always easily locate where your loved one is buried, and that spot has perpetual care.

Each marker at Life Forest links to photos, videos and stories about who’s buried there. The exact latitude and longitude location of each burial site is deed recorded to Life Forest land with the names and vital statistics of those buried there and their beneficiaries.

Life Forest resonates

Patricia Rosenberg was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer in 2014, and after a few rounds of chemotherapy, she decided to stop treatment. Patricia loved the outdoors, as does her husband Alan, so when they started planning for her end-of-life, they wanted to be “harmonious with nature.”

At first, Alan and Patricia discussed the idea of burial at sea with Buddy Phaneuf, President of CSNH. The challenges with that type of farewell are the cost, the unpredictable weather and the travel needed to legally put a body into the water.  

“We had a whole conversation about cremation, and he told me about the carbon offsets they do because of the environmental impact of cremation,” Alan said. “Then he told me about Life Forest and Mel.”

Alan and Patricia had a 45-minute conversation with Mel and hit it off. Her vision really resonated with the couple.

“You choose a planting that symbolizes the love of your loved one who is going to be there,” Alan said.

“Instead of going to a traditional cemetery where you’re just looking at row upon row of cold stone.”

They chose a serviceberry tree to help feed the birds that visit Life Forest. Alan’s granddaughter died three days before Patricia, and is buried in the adjacent spot. They were one of the first burials there in summer 2020.

“I have a real passion for what they do. They made a bad situation easier,” Alan said.

The evolution of funerals

Traci Denver is a funeral director who has overseen services for Phaneuf. She and Mel met at a funeral director’s conference, and Mel asked if she could pick her ear for some advice on opening and operating Life Forest.

“Recently, I helped with my first service over there and I just thought it was stunning. It’s so peaceful. I thought it was very beautiful. I love hiking. I love conservation land. I love the water on the property,” Traci said.

She loved it so much she’s now working part-time with Life Forest.

“The story of the tree that the family picked was just such an impactful part of the service. When you go to a [traditional] cemetery, you don’t talk so much about the tree that your loved one is being buried near,” she said. “This family wanted to plant their tree in the grass. They wanted to be a part of it. I think that was really important to them.”

More than a cemetery 

Mel’s vision sees Life Forest grow. Her small team of staff and volunteers helped create a natural amphitheater in the space where concerts take place. There are plans for a community garden. It’s a gathering place not just for sadness but good times, too, Mel says.

“A woman buried her mom, and the day of the burial, she packed bathing suits for her and her son. We had a beautiful service. Then they put on their bathing suits,” Mel said. “Someone else brought their dog to the service and they enjoyed the river after.”

There are 30 plots sold thus far, some of them purchased from families that plan ahead. (Mel mentioned a mother who had a health scare and arranged for a plot for her entire family.) There are currently 12 plots that are prepped. And plans are underway for prepping part of the additional 12 acres that Life Forest sits on.

“We take appropriate planning very seriously, so we do not impact the existing forest and wildlife,” Mel said. “The best way we’ve found to do that is to plan burial plots in increments as needed.”

Life Forest is sponsoring their environmental scientist, Cameron Ickes, to become a licensed forester in NH.

The future of Life Forest

Full-body burial may also be part of Life Forest’s future. Lee Webster, the Executive Director of New Hampshire Funeral Resources, Education & Advocacy, and one of the nation’s top proponents of green burial, would love to see that – though she praises the efforts made by Life Forest thus far.

“She’s really doing it in a great way. It’s important to work with foresters and other scientists who know what they’re doing. She’s really covered every base. I feel really confident about the way that the cremated remains are treated,” Lee said. “We’ve helped them make some adjustments to make sure that the [cremated remains] are not detrimental to tree roots.”

Lee was quick to point out that other organizations nationwide aren’t doing it right because they essentially charge people to sprinkle cremated remains onto an existing tree in  woods that may be sold and logged.

“I wish the public knew the difference between what she is doing and what some of these fly-by-nights are doing,” Lee said. “They’re not paying attention to the danger of putting cremated remains into a fragile ecosystem.”

Protecting land from deforestation and maintaining the tradition of burial and perpetual care is primary. Following traditional cemetery guidelines with an eye toward the future of the land is also part of Life Forest’s mission. 

“This isn’t just a tree, right? This is a representation of a life that has lived,” Mel said.

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