A forest in Scandia, Minn., will be preserved as the final resting place of loved ones who have passed away.
Early last month, the Scandia City Council unanimously approved a conditional use permit for Better Place Forests (BPF) to maintain Minnesota's very first conservation memorial forest.
An alternative to traditional cemeteries, the memorial forest will be a place to celebrate life in nature. Families and friends will pour out the cremated ashes of their loved ones and dedicate a unique tree to them. The spot will be marked with a small memorial placard.
Better Place Forests, a company based in California, was co-founder Sandy Gibson's idea. It came from a very personal and traumatic part of his life.
When Gibson was ten years old, he lost his father to a stroke, and his mother to cancer when he was eleven. Because the deaths were so sudden, they were buried near a boisterous street.
To Gibson, visiting the graves of his loved ones year after year surrounded by heavy traffic didn't seem fair. He remembered his parents as nature-loving, peaceful people, and their burial place didn't honor that. That's when he set out to offer an alternative to crowded, busy cemeteries.
In 2015, Gibson and his friends Brad Milne and Jamie Knowlton founded Better Place Forests with the mission of honoring the legacy of loved ones. They work to offer a sustainable burial alternative for those who choose cremation, in beautiful nature settings.
Last year, BPF opened America's first conservation memorial forest in California, and have expanded into Arizona, with plans to spread their venues across the country.
Mark Kehke, Chief Real Estate Officer of BPF, is eager to reveal the new Scandia location, a unique place for local residents.
"Our customers get the opportunity to leave a legacy at an approachable price point," Kehke said. "Our average package is less than half the cost of a traditional burial."
While the forest is awaiting a grand opening at an unknown date, there is still lots of work to be done.
The goal is to maintain the natural ecosystem of the forest. That includes hiring local arborists and forest experts to study how native flora and fauna survive and travel in the area. Caretakers will be diligent in keeping out invasive species and preserving the natural peace of the location.
Another obstacle before opening is, of course, the Coronavirus.
"Our first milestone is to open the forest for online tours," Kehke said, "which is especially important given COVID-19. Unfortunately, the pandemic may cause delays in opening the memorial forest for in-person visits."
The workers at BPF are taking extra precautions to make sure visitors and staff are safe and healthy, even while getting a new location ready for opening.
BPF chose the Scandia location because of its excellent conservation value. The opportunity to protect the ecological beauty of beloved natural spaces is an integral part of BPF's mission.
"Under our management," Kehke said, "we will continue to provide watershed and viewshed protection, wildlife habitat and passage, and carbon sequestration.
Support from the Scandia community has been positive. Kehke said he was humbled by the warm welcome and affirming feedback from nearby residents and businesses. Even though in-person visits are still on hold for now, BPF is eager to hear from their new neighbors and settle into community life.
"Not only are we able to protect this forest which is home to Scandia's beautiful flora and fauna," Kehke said, "but we can now also offer families who choose cremation a private and permanently protected place to return their ashes to the earth."
Currently, BPF isn't planning on expanding throughout Minnesota to direct resources towards the Scandia forest.
The forest trails will be open for visitors by reservation only. However, residents within walking distance are welcomed to enjoy the walking paths when memorial ceremonies aren't taking place.