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Environment

Going green - also in death

No elaborate plantings and no large, conspicuous headstone - alternative forms of interment are on the rise, especially in Germany. But what's behind the urge to be buried in nature?

What kind of tree would you most like to become? A maple tree, a gingko - or perhaps an oak tree?

Ever more people are pondering that question - and not just for fun. At least, that's according to Roger Moline. He is the founder of "Urnabios," a company that produces urns that turn into trees over time.

The urns themselves are biodegradable and aside from human ashes, they also contain seeds. This allows human remains to turn into new, green life within a few years.

With Moline having already sold more than 20,000 of his eco-urns, this indicates a trend: ecological interments are on the rise. And for those who feel that turning yourself into a tree is a bit too radical, there is still the option of being buried under one: In Germany alone, there are more than 300 forest spaces established for natural burials.

Funeral in the forest (Photo: FriedWald/Thomas Gasparini)

An oasis of quiet makes for a fitting final resting place

A forest's silence

Jana Giess of "FriedWald" - Germany's largest and oldest company specializing in natural burials - agrees that growing numbers of people are becoming interested in alternative forms of interment. As many as 54,000 people are already buried in FriedWald's forests, while another 135,000 have registered for and planned their tree burials while still alive.

"The open sky, the trees, the air, the rustling of the leaves, the chirping of the birds: many people find that comforting," said Geiss. "Those are moments that you don't usually experience in a regular cemetery," she added.

Often people who have a particular love of nature choose to have their ashes buried in woodland burial grounds, says Giess. These people are dog owners, hikers, forest-lovers - but they may also simply find conventional cemeteries depressing.

Name plaque on tree (Copyright: FriedWald)

A simple plaque memorializes a loved one who has passed on

You won't find any crosses in a woodland burial ground. Instead, names are memorialized with a discreet name plate attached to the tree.

There is no need to care for the flowers or other plantings at the grave, which would otherwise be customary at German cemeteries. At a woodland burial ground, things are supposed to be as natural as possible.

There, you will see moss, ferns, wildflowers, and - depending on the season - foliage or snow. For many people, the fact that relatives aren't required to care for grave sites for decades to come is another good reason to opt for interment at a natural burial ground.

Giving back to nature

But pragmatic reasons and a love of nature during one's lifetime aren't the only things behind the trend, thinks Hannah Rumble. The British anthropologist spent several years researching why people opt for a natural burial in designated forests and meadows. In the end - the final end - it's about giving something back.

"Because the body isn't embalmed, because the graves are shallower and the coffins are biodegradable, the body becomes a source of new life," Rumble said. Making the decomposition process "a source for new life, the earth or trees - that comforts people tremendously," the anthropologist believes.

Compostable urn illustrated in steps (Copyright: Spiritree)

Ashes become new life with the Spiritree

In one sense, it's a way to extend life. Instead of viewing life and death as dualistic opposites, people who want to be buried in nature imagine life and death as a continuum. The end of one life heralds a new one - death then becomes more about lifecycles, Hannah Rumble said.

This close-to-nature attitude; the desire to be absorbed by nature and to "recycle" oneself so concretely also has something to do with changing attitudes and lifestyles - including environmental awareness - Rumble thinks.

"The idea of a natural burial no longer sounds strange - people can relate to it, because similar ideas on recycling have become common in other aspects of our lives," Rumble told DW.

Rediscovering ancient practices

The concept of interment in nature is only novel to a certain extent: such practices have occurred for millennia.

But in the thoroughly structured form in which it is practiced today, the concept is still fairly new. FriedWald was founded in Switzerland 20 years ago, and has only operated in Germany since 2001.

People buried there aren't necessarily atheists, Giess clarified. "Many funerals are accompanied by Christian rituals," she said.

Saving the Earth - and some cash

The cost of an interment under a tree in a woodland burial ground starts at 770 euros (around $840) - however, in that case you'd have to share the tree with strangers. A tree for your own family with up to 10 plots costs 3,350 euros or more, depending on the location, view and type of tree.

That's still much cheaper than the several thousand euros a standard burial typically costs.

Maple tree against mountain

In German culture, maple trees are considered a symbol of freedom

Those who don't want to have their ashes buried under an already fully grown tree, but instead want their relatives to plant a new tree over their remains, get a better deal: Roger Moline's biodegradable urns with integrated seeds cost just under 150 euros.

Most people who are interested in being buried in the woods pick a tree in advance. And then, only one question remains: which kind of tree to feed your remains. According to Roger Moline, most people opt for a maple.

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