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Conservation vs. cemetery: Minnesota's first memorial forest strikes a balance

At Better Place Forests near Scandia, Minnesota, trees replace tombstones and burial plots.

SCANDIA, Minn. — Minnesota's first memorial forest has been quietly gaining popularity as an anti-cemetery for more than a year now. Instead of buying a burial plot, the forest sells trees that come with access to a sprawling private forest near Scandia.

"This tree right here, this was actually purchased by a family that came in together, it was seven individuals," said Tori Nonnemacher, General Manger of Better Place Forests, St. Croix Valley. "They came down here and they found this seven trunk and they knew right away that this was their family tree. It's beautiful."

Better Place Forests opened it's first memorial forest in California, and has now expanded to 10 forests across the country. The company promises a greener option to traditional burials in several ways.

"So we do not bury a whole body here in our forest," Nonnemacher said. "We work with people who have chosen cremation. The ashes are mixed with soil in a ceremony, and the mixture just settles into the ground and it becomes bio available to the forest floor and to the tree that it's at." 

Small engraved memorials are also designed to leave the environment undisturbed, and the rest of the forest remains largely undisturbed. When loved ones visit a tree, they can request temporary benches, which are moved in by staff members.

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"You can feel, when you're in a cemetery, that you're in a cemetery, you're there to view a loved one's tombstone," Nonnemacher said. "This feels very different, and it doesn't take away from what the experience would be for someone in a cemetery. It's just a different type of experience."

The popularity of the new end of life option is no coincidence. It comes at a time when more people are looking for alternative burial options for cremations.

A big cultural shift in the way we remember our dead, has been taking place across the U.S. in recent years. Casket burials are now no longer the norm, and the trend towards cremation is even greater in Minnesota. According to the Cremation Association of North America, 7 in 10 people opted for cremation in 2021. 

One of the reasons behind the cremation trend, is the ability to cut back on funeral and burial expenses. Buying a tree at Better Place Forests does add to that cost, but it's still generally less expensive than the typical burials.

"So the trees start around $4,900," Nonnemacher said. "From there, they could go up depending on the section that you're in."

Trees along the forest's private lake for example, start at about twice that.

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But the cost comes with a commitment to conservation.

"We're working with land trusts, to put in a conservation easement to ensure that no further development happens on the land," she said. "To ensure that we have this land conserved for generations to come."

The forest has already sold several hundred trees, and held roughly 50 ash ceremonies, and only a fraction of the forests trees have been inventoried.

"I think it's a great a idea," said Jennifer Suarez, a neighbor who has been impressed by what she's seen. "I love keeping the nature as nature and visiting something real. Visiting a tree and something alive."

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