The virgin forest on the shores of Scandia’s Fish Lake contains 12 species of trees, as well as turtles, bald eagles and white-tailed deer.
“The deer were running away from us just as fast as they could,” Sandy Gibson said after touring the property last week. “It’s just beautiful to see that kind of natural space and be a part of it.”
As founder of Better Place Forests, Gibson sells the peace and comfort of the forest as an alternative to traditional cemeteries.
For $3,900, customers tour the forest and pick a tree. After death, their cremated ashes are mixed with soil and spread around the tree in a memorial ceremony. A small, personalized bronze marker — similar to a U.S. Geological Survey benchmark — is installed at the tree’s base.
“Instead of a grave and tombstone, a family’s final resting place is their family tree,” said Gibson, the company’s CEO. “People still have a need for ritual and a sense of place. They want a place that their family will feel comfortable visiting and a place that they can remember.”
The 112-acre memorial forest in Scandia, expected to open by next summer, will be the company’s fourth, joining forests in Arizona and California. The seller didn’t want the land developed, Gibson said.
It’s not easy explaining the concept of conservation memorial forests to government officials, Gibson said. “They’ll sit there and kind of look at you and say, ‘How do we even define this? What do we call this? How do we permit this?’ ” he said.
But he found a willing partner in the Scandia City Council, which approved a conditional-use permit on a 5-0 vote in July. No neighbors objected, “which is unheard of,” said Mayor Christine Maefsky, whose goat farm abuts the memorial forest.
“It’s a great idea,” she said. “It’s offering something that many people want, which is a place to visit loved ones, to meditate, to feel close and connected to loved ones who died, and to do it in a beautiful setting while honoring our virgin forest and trees.”
The land, on Lakamaga Trail North, will be placed in a permanent conservation easement, she said.
Gibson, who grew up in Toronto, dealt with death at an early age. He was 10 when his father died of a stroke, and a few months later his mother died of cancer.
“The cemetery was never a beautiful place. It was never really a place I wanted to go,” he said. “It’s a black tombstone about 15 feet from the street. After they chose it, the city put a bus stop there. It doesn’t feel private. It doesn’t feel beautiful. It doesn’t feel like how I want to remember them or a place that I want to go to remember them.”
Gibson was working in software when he came up with the memorial forest idea after visiting his parents’ muddy gravesite in March 2015.
“This bus stopped and it’s loud and it’s screeching and I’m like, ‘There’s got to be a better place than this,’ ” he said.
The way we dispose of our dead has been changing rapidly along with growing awareness of the environmental impact of traditional burial. Resurrection, a Catholic Cemetery in Mendota Heights, started offering “green burials” last year. State death records show there have been three cremations for every two burials this year, and more than 1,000 have had their bodies dissolved in water.
“We’re a new way for families choosing cremation. They can have something that still has the permanence and protection that they are looking for, but it’s something that speaks a little bit more to their values,” Gibson said.
Each forest site includes a parking lot and a staffed visitor center for families to gather and hold ceremonies. The forest will be open to visitors by appointment, but nearby residents can walk the trails, he said.
Many customers spend hours in the forest, he said, packing a picnic and going for a hike. “They want to bring their family and say, ‘This is where your grandparents are. This is where my parents are,’ and they want that experience to be beautiful,” he said.
If anything happens to the family’s tree, Gibson said the company will plant another one nearby or move the memorial to another location, he said.
The ashes of multiple family members can be spread around one tree, but some are buying “groves” of trees in the same area to serve as family plots, Gibson said.
“People used to have family plots on their own land,” he said. “You saw the land as something that would stay in your family forever. As that has gone away, people have asked, ‘Well, how do I keep my family connected? How do I have a family place for all of us?’ ”
Gibson already has picked his own tree, a redwood in Point Arena, Calif.
“As soon as I saw it, I had this overwhelming feeling of, ‘Oh, this is it,’ ” he said. ” ‘This is what forever looks like. Forever is beautiful.’ ”
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