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Life Forest Delivers a New Kind of Cemetery

Published Thursday Nov 4, 2021

Author Matthew J. Mowry

Life Forest in Hillsborough. Photo by Racy Bennett.

While cremation is a popular alternative to traditional burials, beyond spreading a loved one’s ashes somewhere significant or leaving them in an urn on a shelf, there are not many options for what to do with those remains. And it doesn’t necessarily memorialize the life of the deceased.

A first-of-its-kind cemetery is addressing those needs by allowing people to bury the ashes of their loved ones, and their pets, in a cemetery literally filled with life. Life Forest in Hillsborough is a cemetery established in 2019 where trees are planted to memorialize loved ones. The 13-acre lot is surrounded by 80 acres of conservation land where families and friends of those laid to rest can hike numerous trails and swim in nearby creeks.

Life Forest has specialists who ensure the long-term health of the forest and plots, including Darrin Black, owner of Stonefalls Garden in Henniker and a tree expert offering native trees to ensure the sustainability of the Life Forest. What makes this forest unique is that the trees planted on each plot act as burial monuments, and as such are protected under cemetery law and legally recorded with burial plot GPS data to the Life Forest Deed.

Bennett says the conservation and official cemetery status guarantees those buried will be protected in perpetuity. “We wanted to ensure we followed cemetery law,” says Mel Bennett, who co-founded Life Forest with John O’Neil. “It would have to be decommissioned by the state of New Hampshire, which is expensive and not easy. This is a way of protecting people.” The trees are legally recorded as memorial markers, further protecting them. “That tree is now protected by cemetery law,” she says.

Mel Bennett, co-founder, with a memorial tree. Photo by Racy Bennett.

Life Forest had more than 60 burials this season and currently has 30 trees. People are able to bury any number of remains in a plot at no extra charge. Life Forest is designed to be a place of peace for those visiting loved ones or others who just want to enjoy nature. And the business offers free acoustical concerts and provides shared memorial gardens as well as a pollinator garden to attract bees and butterflies. About a dozen people on their team take care of everything from recording and mapping plot sites to assisting families to maintaining trails and the health of the gardens.

“It has different aspects that touch people in different ways,” Bennett says. Some people want to be buried and commemorated with their pets, says Bennett. “When people are ill, their comfort and protection are with their pets,” she says.

Bennett points to a fashion designer who wanted to be buried with his dogs, but his husband could not find any place. His ashes and those of his dog are now buried beneath a pink hydrangea.

A young mother with two sons had her 35-year-old husband buried there, allowing the kids to hike and swim after visiting their father’s grave. Another woman had the cremated remains of her husband, her in-laws and her husband’s favorite dog all buried in one plot. “She brought all these remains she was holding safe and did not know what to do with,” Bennett says. “She finally had a safe spot to put them.”

Life Forest also provides life journals with seed paper so people can write a letter to leave at base of a tree from which flowers can grow.

Life Forest also recently became the first cemetery to legally offer burial of human and pet composted remains. Natural Organic Reduction, a form of human composting, was approved for the first time in 2019 in Washington State. This process, pioneered by Katrina Spade of Recompose, is a managed biological process that transforms human remains into soil over the course of 30 days, Bennett explains. She notes it requires one-eighth the energy of conventional burial or cremation and saves one metric ton of CO2 per person. “Human and pet composting is the wave of future,” Bennett says.

Bennett says Life Forest is in an eco-friendly option and “takes cemeteries out of antiquity and brings in technology.” Each tree is marked with a QR code that, when scanned, brings up the name of the person or people and animals buried there as well as information and stories about them, Bennett says.

She says prices are all inclusive and based on the amount of space the tree will need to grow. Life Forest offers options ranging from a single ash burial for $850 in a commemorative area to a plot with a larger tree starting at $3,500. “We are able to reach anybody’s financial need,” she says.

Life Forest donates plots for the burial of children, as well as those who die in state care, such as prison or a mental health facility, with no one to claim their remains. “We never charge to host a burial service related to stigma-related death such as a drug overdose or death by suicide. We feel family has been through enough,” Bennett says.

Bennett was inspired by her mother to start Life Forest, who, in 2020, became the first person to be buried there under a dogwood tree. Her mother, who died after battling Alzheimer’s, used to allay her daughter’s fear of cemeteries by saying, “Sweetheart, there is nothing to be scared of because one day I will die and become a tree.”

While researching options for her mother’s ashes, Bennett came across an urn in which a tree could be planted. “She was right, she can be a tree,” Bennett thought but was unsure where she could plant it where it would not be disturbed. And that is where the idea for Life Forest began.  

Bennett says Life Forest attracts people from out of state and is working on a second site in Connecticut. “I would like to see six more sites opened in the next two years throughout New England,” she says.

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