What Tree Will You Be When You Die?

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day / When the last fires will wave to me / And the silence will set out / Tireless traveller / Like the beam of a lightless star

I’ve just been thinking about dying, and words from W. S. Merwin’s poem, For the Anniversary of My Death, are winding their way through my body, provoking mild anxiety in my stomach and a cloudy kind of clarity in my mind. Remembering that every day could be either the anniversary of my death, or my actual death, is both terrifying and motivating.

When I do go, I want to be a tree. I’m not really fixed on a particular species. I’d be happy to be a she oak like the ones on the banks of the river near my house, or a yellow box from the farm of my childhood. But I’d also be fine to be a banksia or an angophora. As long as my body is offering itself to new life, I’m not sure I mind. I mean, I won’t mind, because I won’t have one.

One thing I do mind, though, is the way I go. No funeral parlour, no horrible MDF coffin, no embalming, no city cemetery. None of that business. I want to simply return to the earth and help something else grow. I’m not alone. The movement towards natural death practices is growing rapidly (ha!) due to the economic and environmental costs of common funeral practices, and a desire to re-connect to the rituals around death. Green funeral directors, death walkers, coffin making clubs, death cafes, and even mushroom burial suits are part of a return to a more connected vision of death and dying.

Eastern Suburbs Memorial Park (park?!), Botany. Image by Daniel Shipp for a Planthunter essay on death and the landscape.

For those of us who want to be trees when we’re no longer humans, there’s currently few ways to go. A natural burial in a shroud or cardboard/raw-timber coffin at one of the few natural burial cemeteries in each state in Australia is an option, but tricky if you don’t live nearby; and burial on private land is illegal without local government permission.

People don’t seem to be so keen on the bull banksia. It’s a great tree… but, you know, people identify more with becoming a 30-meter jarrah…

Warren Roberts

And then there’s cremation. Most people, these days, are cremated – around 70% of the 150,000 Australians who die each year. And whilst it might seem like a good idea to request your ashes to be spread around the base of a beloved tree, garden or bushland environment, I learnt from Warren Roberts of Living Legacy Forest, that it’s more likely to end than nourish life. Human cremated remains are highly alkaline, with a pH of around 11-12, and are also very high in sodium. He told me, during an interview a few years back, that it’s like putting washing powder or bleach onto the soil.  

After grieving over the death of his best friend for many years, and finally finding solace in nature, Warren had the idea of infusing cremated human remains into trees – growing memorial trees that were nourished by the essence of a person. After testing and testing and testing, and killing many trees, Warren and plant scientist Mary Cole managed to develop a process of mixing cremated human remains with highly active biological material, which allows the remains to be broken down and accessed as plant food. Since then, Living Legacy Forest has licenced their technology to city councils, state governments and cemetery trusts, enabling the growth of memorial forests in existing cemeteries.

But what is really exciting is the idea of combining memorial forests and conservation, as illustrated by the Living Legacy Wellington Dam Memorial Forest in Western Australia. The land is owned by the Jeffreys family – artist Leila Jeffreys and her brother Bruce – who, when they first spoke with Warren, were in the process of placing a conservation covenant on the site. “The family wanted to have the site protected, and also to share its beauty with others. We wanted to protect it and connect people to the beauty of the site, and our process funds that. It was a perfect synergy!” says Warren.

The Wellington Dam property is around 40 hectares. Of this, eight hectares needs rehabilitation. The 4000 trees used to rehabilitate it will be memorial trees infused with cremated remains. “We’re really passionate about using the fact that trees have monetary value to support and fund conservation,” Warren tells me. “In this forest you’re not just getting a memorial tree you’re also contributing to something much bigger – a conservation project. That’s a great thing, it helps connects people to a bigger purpose.”

The purchasing of the trees by patrons ensures funds for ongoing care and maintenance of the land. It’s a nice transition, suggests Warren. “We just to chop down forests to create graveyards, and now we’re funding the restoration of them.” Not only will the forest be rehabilitated and protected, it becomes, too, a place of great cultural and personal value. It will be a place for the family and friends of the people memorialised within the forest to visit, connect and remember.   

Planting at the Wellington Dam Living Legacy forest. Image by Where To Next.

A few weeks ago there was a planting day at the Wellington Dam Living Legacy Forest. Because of the site’s high ecological value, the species selection for memorial tree planting is limited to locally endemic species such as Jarrah (Eucalyptus marginata), Marri (Corymbia calophylla), blackbutt (Eucalyptus patens) and bull banksia (Banksia grandis. I’m curious about which of these trees people chose to represent their loved ones? According to Warren, it’s size that matters after all. “People don’t seem to be so keen on the bull banksia. It’s a great tree and it attracts lots of birds but, you know, people identify more with becoming a 30-meter jarrah tree.”

Hang on, do people plant their memorial tree themselves? Before they die? I assumed it’d be family members selecting trees for loved ones, not people selecting their own trees? “Yes, most of our patrons pre-plant,” Warren tells me. “People plant their tree when it’s just a few centimeters tall. When their time comes, we infuse their ashes to it, the tree they planted with their own hands. We plant the trees together, and we do it with the awareness that one day we will have the person’s ashes in our hands. It’s a big responsibility and a very profound experience.”

I love this. I love the way it stimulates a new conversation. Around loss, of course, but also around legacy. Warren agrees. “You go from talking about how you’re going to die to talking about what tree you’re going to become, what moth you want to flower in. It’s a completely different way of relating to what your life creates.”

Trees ready to be planted at the Wellington Dam Living Legacy Forest. Image by Where To Next.
Wellington Dam Living Legacy Forest. Image by Where To Next.

Ernest Becker, in The Denial of Death, suggests that in order to face our own death anxiety humans often create “immortality projects” – endeavours that have enduring significance long after we’re gone. This can manifest in dangerous ways of course, but also, as Sally Gillespie writes in Climate Crisis and Consciousness, positive ones too. Like the possibility of “consciously taking on the preservation of our planet and its ecosystems as a kind of cultural ‘immortality project’ which satisfies existential desires for symbolic perpetuation and meaning in life.” Memorial forests fit this framework. They offer patrons a new way of seeing their life, and their death. They’re landscapes that have a high cultural and ecological value, meaning they’ll be protected indefinitely, and they offer a much needed carbon sink.

“Now more than ever, it feels important for people to be part of creating a solution”, Warren says. “We’re not complaining about what the government isn’t doing about climate change, we’re creating something new together. It’s not just a physical thing, we’re changing our relationship to land, and we’re changing it for generations to come.” Warren is planning more Living Legacy forests across Australia over the coming years, and is also working with local governments and city authorities to promote the concept of memorial forests as green infrastructure in cities. It’s a no brainer. Cities are running out of cemetery space, yet we desperately need more trees in urban areas. Right now, Warren suggests, there’s an economic value in chopping trees down, but what if there’s an economic (and cultural) value in planting them? More trees, more valuing of trees, and more connection to the cycle of life and death. Brilliant.

I love the idea of becoming part of a forest when I’m gone. Just thinking about it now makes the idea of my death feel less final and less scary – more of a transition than an end. But thankfully, I’m still alive. And so, I’ll continue to heed the advice of psychiatrist and near-death studies pioneer Elisabeth Kübler-Ross whilst planning my transition into forest when my time comes: “It is very important that you only do what you love to do. You may be poor, you may go hungry, you may lose your car, you may have to move into a shabby place to live, but you will totally live. And at the end of your days you will bless your life because you have done what you came here to do.”

Wellington Dam Living Legacy Forest. Image by Where To Next.