If I had a bitcoin for every time someone excitedly expressed the desire to “become” a tree after they die, I’d be annotating this piece to my robot butler from my very own tropical island…
Yes, we completely understand the comforting visual of your decaying body (somehow) nourishing and feeding a growing tree (we are made up of 70% water, right?). We are however deeply saddened to inform you that you may need to rethink your green end-of-life plans.
In this guest piece, authored by our friends at Life Forest, we dig into the ~root~ of this misconception, and provide actual green(ish) disposition options that can incorporate our beloved trees.
How to Become a Tree when you Die – Debunked
Where did the idea of tree burial originate?
The modern idea of becoming a tree post-mortem was pioneered by Capsula Mundi, whose capsul was designed to bring people closer to nature. Capsula Mundi proposed an egg-shaped biodegradable pod where people are placed in the fetal position and buried underneath a tree of their choice. “In a culture that is far removed from nature, overloaded with objects, and focused on youth, death is often dealt with as a taboo,” said Capsula Mundi founders Citelli and Bretzel.
“The biological life cycle and its transformations are the same for every living being. It is time for humans to realize our integrated part in nature,” they explained. “Capsula Mundi wants to emphasize that we are a part of nature’s cycle of transformation.”
Capsula Mundi began as an art installation and has not been produced as a purchasable product for full body burial. It was designed to open our minds to death and dying. Currently, Capsula Mundi produces and sells biodegradable urns for burying cremated remains.
Misconceptions about “becoming a tree”
In general, the biggest misconception about becoming a tree is that your body helps the tree thrive. People are led to believe that their ashes are feeding and nourishing the tree, and the remains become integrated into the root system. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Cremated remains, in particular, can actually harm immature trees. Cremains are alkaline based and extremely salty, which dehydrates the tree. If you were to put ashes directly under a young tree, it most likely will not survive, yet alone thrive.
It may be best to view the tree as a commemoration of the life of the deceased, versus that person truly becoming part of the tree. Some companies offering solutions to incorporate cremains may provide a product where the cremains are separated from the tree roots themselves. Others provide a proprietary mixture of materials that are combined with remains to neutralize the alkalinity to help amend the soil for better tree growth.
What then, is the best way to plant a tree above cremation remains under a tree?
At Life Forest, in Hillsborough, NH, cremated remains are planted alongside a memorial tree. We are able to do so successfully after undertaking a lot of research, testing and consultations with arborists. Here is how we do it.
Memorial trees are selected in their “teenage” years, ensuring they have an established root system to safeguard tree survival after planting. We have performed soil analyses and we know what types of trees will succeed at Life Forest. We also understand how our trees grow (do the roots grow side to side or downward?) and what the needs of those trees are (sun and water requirements). Using a rich natural organic compost material is also essential, as well as protecting the roots from the cremains. To do this, ashes are placed 18 inches below the root ball of the tree. We separate the cremains from the root ball using a piece of 100% wool. Upon biodegrading, the wool becomes a natural rich compost for the burial tree. In the situations where people don’t want to see the cremains placed directly in the ground, we place the cremains in biodegradable bamboo baskets before burying.
Life Forest has also developed a way to add additional cremains to an already planted memorial tree later on in a safe way too. By placing a piece of slate in the ground against the root ball during the initial planting, as the tree grows, roots reach the slate and grow around it to create a cavern of space (just as a tree would do in nature if it encountered a big rock in the soil). We can then safely dig into that space and place additional cremains on future occasions.
The challenge of full-body tree burial
At Life Forest, we have chosen not to perform full body burials at this time. We are not sure that we could perform natural full body burials underneath freshly planted trees in our location due to safety and cemetery burial law concerns. Primarily, part of the tree planting process involves a large amount of watering early on (up to 6 gallons a day per tree), creating a wetland environment that may not comply with cemetery rules for burial.
Placing a large tree root ball directly on top of an unembalmed loved one during a service would not be the most pleasant experience for those in attendance. The initial watering of the tree root ball involves filling the entirety of the hole with water, another potentially unpleasant sight. Water also causes another important concern. As explained by full body animal composting expert Michelle Melaragno, adding water to an environment lowers the temperature of the soil and disrupts the body’s decomposition process. Additionally, young root growth could be disrupted by the presence of the body or could push remains toward the surface as the tree grows.
The idea of performing a natural full body burial beneath a tree is not implausible, however. One could absolutely bury a body beside an already established tree. Many cemeteries that allow natural full body burials do so in places where traditional burials may not be feasible (due to the presence of a concrete vault and requirement for more space in a traditional burial).
Natural burials are typically dug at a depth of 3-4 feet and can be done in smaller spaces, such as between large tree root systems. Alternatively, natural burials may be commemorated by planting small shrubs or wildflowers nearby. A key goal of natural burial is to disturb the environment as little as possible and to work with the land as it is; planting a tree in a heavily wooded area will only disrupt the flora and fauna.
So you want to become a tree when you die? Here are the questions you should ask your funeral provider:
- How do you protect my access rights to the tree?
- Where and how is the information with regards to my particular tree kept, and how do I access that information?
- Do you have a tree replacement plan if my tree does not thrive?
- Do you deed record my loved one’s burial and will you provide me with a book and page number with my loved one’s information from the registry of deeds?
- Do my beneficiaries have rights 100 years from now to replace the tree and please explain how those rights are legally protected for future generations?
- What are your spacing requirements between trees and how was that determined?
- How do you protect the root system of my tree when digging future burials?
At the end of the day, we must listen to the science and perform tree-oriented burials properly and with respect to the deceased and to the environment. It is important to do your research when it comes to disposition choices. Taking a forest, and trying to plant a whole bunch of bodies in it, will ultimately disrupt nature.
We must not forget that natural and conservation burial is meant to do the least harm to our land. Pay attention to how a cemetery, company, or service preserves the land where a tree will be planted, and protect that tree for many, many years to come.
Have more questions about tree burial?
Life Forest cemetery can also guide you with help on safe tree burial options, you may contact them at www.thelifeforest.com.
Do the comments here about cremated remains refer to water cremation or fire cremation or both?
This is an excellent question Susie. The comments here were in direct reference to fire cremation. Life Forest has not tested any cremains that were produced by water cremation, so that research would need to be done prior to making and assumptions.
How about spreading the composted remains around a tree? That sounds to me like the most suitable way of actually becoming the tree and nurturing it as well.