A budding cemetery in Hillsborough upends traditional approaches

  • Todd Glover stands next to the tree planted in honor of his father, Arthur, at the Life Forest Conservation Cemetery in Hillsborough on Friday. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • Cameron Ickes from Life Forest Conservation Cemetery in Hillsboro wipes off the qr code stand next to a planted tree on Friday, November 12, 2021. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The cemetery welcomes pets and has space for events like book readings and live music.

  • Todd Glover stands next to the tree planted in honor of his father, Arthur at the Life Forest Conservation Cemetery in Hillsboro on Friday, November 12, 2021. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Cameron Ickes and co-owner Mel Bennett from Life Forest Conservation Cemetery in Hillsborough stand next to a planted tree on Nov. 19. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • owner Mel Bennett from Life Forest Conservation Cemetery along with Todd Glover and Cameron Ickes in Hillsboro on Friday, November 12, 2021. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The Life Forest Conservation Cemetery in Hillsboro on Friday, November 12, 2021. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • A QR code for Arthur Glover at the Life Forest Conservation Cemetery.

  • Todd Glover stands next to the tree planted in honor of his father, Arthur at the Life Forest Conservation Cemetery in Hillsboro on Friday, November 12, 2021. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 11/27/2021 1:02:17 PM

Life Forest is a registered cemetery but it hardly looks the part.

The Hillsborough property is composed of 13 acres of wetlands and wooded trails, surrounded by 80 acres of land maintained by a conservation commission. A river, regularly stocked with game, cuts through the property, allowing for swimming and fishing. Repurposed church pews sit in groups along the trail for children’s book readings and an acoustic music series that are open to the public.

The most obvious departure from a traditional graveyard is a small pocket of young trees at the entrance of the property. This collection of hydrangeas, Sargent crabapple trees, maples, cherry trees and others serve as living memorials.

Each has its own plaque, detailing whose ashes are buried beneath and a QR code that, when scanned with a smartphone camera, opens an online obituary.

The idea for an unconventional cemetery came to Mel Bennett, the co-founder of Life Forest, after her mother died following a long battle with early-onset dementia. Bennett didn’t like the feel of cemeteries — the granite headstones and tightly trimmed grass seemed sterile and unwelcoming. Then she remembered something her mom repeated to quell Bennett’s fears about death.

“She would she would say to me, ‘you don’t have to be scared because someday I’m gonna die and become a tree,’ ” Bennett said.

Bennett’s mother always dreamed of planting a dogwood their yard. Now, she’s buried alongside her favorite tree, known for its dainty white flowers that bloom in the spring.

Since December 2020, when her mother was buried, Life Forest has planted about 20 more trees and the ashes of more that 70 people and pets. Many more plots are reserved.

The living memorials enjoy the same legal protections as stone headstones — desecrating a tree could result in hefty fines and jail time. If a tree dies from natural causes, Life Forest will replace the tree for up to five years after it was planted, after which families can choose to replace the tree on their own.

Trees are planted on top of slate squares that shape roots into a cavern for more ashes if a family has a need for it later.

“People show up with drawers full of ashes,”she said. “Pets, dogs, cats, in-laws, siblings, they’re all showing up in from the cabinet.”

Family pets can also be buried alongside their owners, an accommodation few mainstream cemeteries make. Bennett pointed to an October Maple and the plaque below, which features a photo of a fluffy Shih Tzu mix named Rexie.

“This is a huge tree,” she said. “I think it’s the biggest tree in our forest. It’s bigger than my mom’s tree.”

Planting a tree at Life Forest is expensive— a smaller shrub, like a hydrangea or cherry tree, will run you $3,500 and a larger tree, like a birch or spruce, can cost upwards of $6,000.

But to her business partner’s dismay, Bennett had a habit of waiving the cost of burial for families. When someone without family died in state care or when a breadwinner suffered a “stigmatized death,” or when a child passed, she couldn’t turn them away.

“What am I supposed to do, say I’m sorry?” she asked. “If you’re gonna get into an industry like death care, you have to resign to the fact that you want to do it with compassion and you’re going to have to give.”

Bennett firmly believed that her generosity would find its way back to Life Forest and so far, she’s been proven right.

In 2019, after she gifted a weeping cherry tree to the family of a 20-year-old car accident victim, the younger brother quietly arrived every week of summer to mow the entire trail.

“That’s when I knew that the gift economy works,” she said. “I didn’t have the money to pay somebody to go up and down that trail, and it got taken care of.”

Todd Glover buried his late father, Arthur Glover, under a bloodgood Japanese maple, which will one day blossom into a 17-foot tree with fiery red leaves.

The selection seemed fitting for his dad, who served in Japan for several years during World War II. It also held special meaning for his elderly mother, who planted a tree with her husband at every one of their homes over a 68-year marriage.

“It wasn’t home until they planted their tree,” he said. “Now it’s home.”

When the time comes, Glover’s mother plans to be buried with her husband at Life Forest, as a final home made whole by their maple.

“Both of my folks didn’t want to have anything to do with with cemetery— it’s the idea of unnatural cold place with stones,” he said. “This is just a place to connect and talk and know that this is where dad’s tree is growing.”


Teddy Rosenbluth bio photo

Teddy Rosenbluth is a Report for America corps member covering health care issues for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. She has covered science and health care for Los Angeles Magazine, the Santa Monica Daily Press and UCLA's Daily Bruin, where she was a health editor and later magazine director. Her investigative reporting has brought her everywhere from the streets of Los Angeles to the hospitals of New Delhi. Her work garnered first place for Best Enterprise News Story from the California Journalism Awards, and she was a national finalist for the Society of Professional Journalists Best Magazine Article. She graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in psychobiology.



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