Beyond the Gates: A Cemetery Explorer’s Guide to Life Forest Conservation Cemetery

December 17, 2020

Beyond the Gates: A Cemetery Explorer’s Guide is a blog hosted by The Friends of Mount Auburn Cemetery written and researched by Corinne Elicone and Zoë G. Burnett. Our intention for this blog is to rediscover the out of the way and obscure graveyards that surround us, as well as to uncover new histories among the more well-trod grounds of prominent burial places. With this blog as a guide, visitors can experience cemeteries in a new way. As important landmarks of cultural heritage, our hope is that interest in these quiet places will help to preserve and educate us about our past and, ultimately, everyone’s shared future.

LIFE FOREST | HILLSBOROUGH, NH (2020)

Reader, today we have something a little different for you. Over the course of this blog series we’ve explored historic Puritan and Colonial burial grounds with stark slate tombstones as well as the sentimental garden cemeteries of the Victorian era with elegant marble monuments. Our introduction page for the blog gives a little primer on the history of New England burial grounds and their unique evolution from colonial to victorian to the 20th century. Just as Mount Auburn rose to the occasion of solving both the philosophical and logistical issues of burying the dead in the early 1800s, some new cemeteries created in the past 20 years are solving our newer problems; mainly climate change and the lack of autonomy many feel when a loved one dies. With the rise of natural burial and cremation, we are witnessing another evolution in how our mortal remains are laid to rest: conservation cemeteries, high tech urban towers of columbaria, and even entirely new processes like aquamation and recomposition. It truly is quite a time to be alive (or dead).

Today we’re exploring a cemetery that’s about as new as you can get. Life Forest Cemetery in Hillsborough, New Hampshire started burying in April of 2020 and is a new type of cemetery– a conservation cemetery that inters cremated remains beneath a tree of your choice. In short, conservation cemeteries solve a relatively new problem with new ideas: how can we protect conservation land from development? How can we fund this protection? Well, you can bury people there! The deeds of the burials are a private agreement to restrict the use/development of the land, and the money made from selling burial space goes directly to the upkeep of the land, just like a regular cemetery. But generally, these conservation cemeteries also aim to remedy a spiritual disconnection as well; how we remember our loved ones should be more than just a thought in passing in the days or years after their death. Sadly, for many, our relationship to them stops growing after their funeral. It’s clear to me upon arriving at Life Forest that this dedication to growth is the priority: whether it’s the baby tree “monuments” just out of the nursery or the evidence of visitors walking the trails leaving little stone towers–mementos to their loved ones.

Mel Bennett, one of the co-founders of Life Forest, and my tour guide for the day tells me the story of a young woman who purchased a plot at the cemetery, despite hopefully not needing to use it for many years. She brings her young daughter there to picnic, go on hikes, play in the stream–building a connection to this land where one day she will be buried. She hopes that when the day comes that she dies, her daughter will be comforted by the fond memories of her at Life Forest and that she will visit her often–filled with a heart-warming nostalgia instead of a weighty grief. Throughout the 20th century cemeteries have become delegated spaces for sadness that exist in a vacuum. They are where one visits on the worst days of one’s life and rarely at any other time. In general, cemetery visitation is at an all time low. The associations of tragedy, guilt, and grief are difficult to overcome and are the reasons why many feel so uncomfortable visiting cemeteries – Mel herself being one of those people. Could we socialize a more positive relationship with death? Can we foster cemeteries as places for living as much as for the dead? Many cultures have proven this to be possible, and at Life Forest in New Hampshire it begins with a tree. 

Mel Bennett Co-Founder of Life Forest

THE PROCESS

I know I should be practicing what I preach, but the reality is it is extremely difficult to cultivate a positive relationship with death. Even being in the business myself didn’t save me from the emotional rollercoaster that is grief. A few years ago I lost my aunt, Juliette to cancer. Our relationship had been rocky the past few years and I hadn’t spoken to her much due to a political disagreement, which appears unbelievably petty to me now–of course any dispute that ends in an unfriending on Facebook is bound to be. But for all my life we had been extremely close. She was a painter and a piano player, and was the biggest supporter of my music. She was the one who taught me how to read chords and play from my first Beatles sheet music, she was the person I would watch the Wizard of Oz twice in a row with, the person who would take me to vintage stores to model those elegant 1940s hats.  

My Aunt “Julie”

I was with her in the hospital as she was dying, which (despite the cancer) was a rather sudden and steep decline that took us by surprise. For me, first came the anger, mostly at myself. And then the deep existential sadness that comes with the loss of an artist compounded by the loss of their art. It was too much, so I did what most people do and built a wall. I’m ashamed to admit it, but writing this is the most thinking I’ve done on the topic since she died. No matter which way you cut it, being aware of unhealthy relationships with death doesn’t save you from one. That requires work. My story is not unlike the ones our clients visit us with at Mount Auburn, and it’s not unlike the ones that Mel encounters at Life Forest either.

Mel had sent me an email suggesting that we take a first person approach for the tour of Life Forest. In other words, I select a loved one that I’ve lost that I would like “buried” at Life Forest and Mel will take me through the motions that all of her families go through. Although it took a little courage, I selected my aunt Juliette who had told me she wanted a conservation burial but never received one. I sent Mel some information, and was off to New Hampshire the next day to begin the process.

THE TREE

Clients at Life Forest Cemetery start their journey by choosing a tree just like a family would choose a stone monument. Life Forest has the pleasure of partnering with Darrin and Kim Black of StoneFalls Gardens in Henniker, New Hampshire as the supplier of trees. It’s late November so the leaves and flowers are all gone, but I relish the New England woods in the fall and the beautiful architecture of all the tree branches. StoneFalls Gardens is preparing for winter, and it’s clear they take their operation as stewards of the environment very seriously. I stand with Darrin and Mel in front of three piles of dirt probably as large as my house, this is StoneFalls Gardens’ compost area. Darrin collects the compost from the community, as well as from the brush on his own grounds and uses a rotating system to age the compost and then filter it. He’s created a self-sustaining process as he’s able to grow all of his plants using his own compost that he creates every year.     

Compost Piles

I meandered around the nursery with the trio of my guides waiting at the top of the hill, patiently giving me space while I made my choice. Gentle, kind, and knowledgeable are the words that come to mind to describe the StoneFalls Gardens crew. They truly possess the demeanor required to comfort grief-stricken families, as they open up their nursery to receive individuals as they navigate this deeply emotional choice. I “selected” a dogwood tree for my aunt, I know she would appreciate the early spring flowers and could easily imagine them appearing in one of her paintings.

THE LAND

Life Forest is located on land that had been cleared by a logging company in the past and has a number of little alcoves where clients can select their locations. Life Forest land hosts a conservation easement from the Hillsborough Conservation Commission, who’s walking trails are located all around the burial area. Having just started out, Mel makes it clear to me that the landscape is still very much a work in progress. She and her co-founder John are often clearing brush, forging paths, and removing tree stumps– remnants from the loggers. 

Stone circles surround mulched saplings that dot the cleared area of Life Forest. Tiny metal markers created by a local artist denote family names and dates for each plot. Life Forest has even invented a way to inter cremated remains without jeopardizing the tree’s roots for future burials. When a plot is purchased the owners are given GPS Coordinates to the site of the grave, as well as a QR Code to an online memorial page for a lost loved one. There families can upload pictures, videos, and type stories to populate the page. This is what the cemeteries of the future will look like.

MEMENTOS

Upon hopping out of the car on Life Forest’s grounds Mel hands me a bag. Inside is a painted rock of a sunset (or sunrise) with a music staff. Mel’s daughter had painted the rock for me to honor my aunt. A small, but immensely meaningful tribute from someone who has never met me but recognizes the importance of losing someone. I place the stone on a nearby boulder that Mel says will eventually become a memory wall for visitors.

Also in the bag a locket with the Life Forest tree on it. Inside is a small scroll with sheet music of Blackbird by the Beatles.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night

Take these broken wings and learn to fly

All your life

You were only waiting for this moment to arise

Despite being brand new and navigating the uncertain waters of the pandemic, Life Forest has already demonstrated they excel at the most important part of being a cemetery-keeper: holding the space and holding the bereaved.

A big thank you to Darrin and Kim Black of StoneFalls Gardens and Mel Bennett, her wonderful family, and the rest of the Life Forest team for making me feel so welcome miles away from home.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Corinne Elicone is the Events & Outreach Coordinator at Mount Auburn Cemetery. She curates Mount Auburn’s “death positive” programming, online video content, and historic walking tours of the grounds. She is also Mount Auburn’s first female crematory operator in their near 190 year history.

If you are a representative of a cemetery or a cemetery historian and would like to see your cemetery featured in this blog please email Corinne Elicone at celicone@mountauburn.org

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