A ‘gradual goodbye’ process can ease caregiver stress, aid acceptance
By Lee Woodruff
It used to be that end-of-life discussions — specifically those around final wishes for burial sites and memorials — were limited to a few choices. Does my loved one want a traditional burial or does he want to be cremated? Is there a family plot? Should we opt for a burial spot central to all? These topics, while difficult and sometimes awkward, are critical. And advance planning is one way to ease the anxiety and unknowns that arise in the wake of death and loss.
Sometimes those early discussions can lead you in a surprising direction. For the Groves family, it was choosing a green burial.
Pamela Groves-Gaggioli, 69, of Northfield, Minnesota, started the conversation with her brother Steve Groves, 67, of Stillwater, Minnesota, after their mother asked the siblings to help her find a burial plot where the entire family could visit. Maxine Groves, 92, of Hudson, Wisconsin, had grown up on a farm. And while this remarkable woman was hale and hearty, the Groves family wanted to get what they called “a head-start on the end-of-life conversation.”
“We began looking at some of the cemeteries around our homes and they just didn’t feel right, for one reason or the other,” says Pamela, who had recently lost her own husband of 26 years, Fred. She’d taken Fred’s ashes to Italy and spread some in a gorgeous place in the woods, but she also was determined to find a spot near home where she and her daughter, Maggie, could go and feel close to him.
A growing memorial
A friend told Pamela about Better Place Forests’ St. Croix Valley location, in Scandia, Minnesota, a memorial forest where family members choose a tree and have their cremated ashes mixed with local soil and spread around the tree as a final resting place for themselves and future generations.
Pamela investigated. As she visited the forest, she spotted a red maple with seven branches, the exact number of her extended family members.Maxine Groves was gifted a chainsaw for her birthday from her kids.
Suzy Oswald Maxine Groves was gifted a chainsaw for her birthday from her kids.
Suzy OswaldSomething about the tree struck her. Instead of looking for a plot in the ground, what if, in death, they could all be part of something growing and living, like this tree?
Pamela shared the concept with her brother, Steve; he was all in. As executor of the will, he knew they had to start making some decisions before their mom died, especially with five siblings. When their father had passed away 13 years earlier, nothing had been planned and it had been a scramble during an already sad time. He was determined that the family not repeat that experience.
“We’re a positive, outgoing, nature-connected and close-knit family,” says Steve. “The idea of making our final resting place all together in a forest, each with our own branch, was extremely appealing. For us, it was everything that a traditional cemetery wasn’t.”
The whole family traveled to see the spot. “It was a spectacular day, and we all felt really good about the excursion; upbeat, not sad,” Steve recalls. “My mom could not have been happier. Making this decision and standing around the tree, it was like a 1,000-pound rock had been lifted off our backs.”>
Connecting to nature
Places like Better Place Forests are part of a macro trend of “green end-of-life options” that offer a personalized and eco-friendly solution to end of life. According to the National Funeral Directors Association’s 2022 Consumer Awareness and Preferences Report, 60.5 percent of the Americans surveyed would explore green funeral options for their potential savings and reduced environmental impact. Many of these new options connect people more closely to nature in death, whether it’s planting ashes under fruit trees, a “gentler” water-based cremation like the process used at White Rose Aqua Cremation in California, choosing biodegradable caskets or even using remains to become part of rebuilding vital coral reefs.
Micah Truman, 51, CEO and Founder of Return Home in Auburn, Washington, says “human beings were designed to be returned to the earth.” His company has developed a process called terramation that uses microbes in the body to gently convert human remains into soil. The 60-day process involves placing the body into a vessel with alfalfa, straw and sawdust. Once the terramation process is complete, the families may use the soil in any way they see fit, sharing with others and planting trees or flowers in beloved places.
“It’s so important to begin talking about the dying process and yet it’s still a conversation that most of us are hesitant to have,” he notes.
Over Return Home’s 15 months of operation, Truman has witnessed some unexpected and wonderful moments of connection, conversation and acceptance around death. “People will come to our facility and visit the vessel, sit by it and talk to their loved one,” says Truman. “They decorate the vessel with important keepsakes, and at the start of the terramation process [they] place flowers, food or even letters in the vessel. This gradual way of saying goodbye has been beautiful to observe.”
Less stress, more peace
Being in nature eases pain and grief, says John Collins, CEO of Better Place Forests.
“Even having an end-of-life conversation when surrounded by trees is certainly less stressful engulfed by green leaves and birdsong,” he says. “Unfortunately, for the past century or so, death and end-of-life care have been treated more transactionally and with some remove, as if dying were taboo. … We encourage people to start the conversations here and use the trees as a way to think about their own end of life story. It makes it so much less stressful on both the caregivers and family members.”
Pamela is all for less stress. For her that means making the hard end-of-life choices now. “My daughter Maggie is my only one,” she explains. “I know from personal experience that when the end comes, you’re grieving, and I don’t want to leave her alone trying to make all these tough decisions. I want everything to be easy for her. Out in nature is where I feel closest to God.”
Members of the Groves family say they are happy that the overall cost of their decision of a family tree was less expensive than a traditional burial and family plot, but are also placated by the fact that by being in a protected forest means that no one will ever be able to build there. Steve and his siblings also love that the organization donates trees to areas that have been devastated by forest fires.
“Mom gave us our love of the outdoors as kids going up to the farm, and this decision is a real extension of that,” says Steve. “How can you argue with the fact that you’re being kind to nature and at the same time you’re making everyone happy? That’s priceless to me.”
AARP family caregiving expert Amy Goyer offers tips on how to make ongoing discussions go smoother:
• Start early. Bring up the topic in “some day” terms. Don’t wait until a health crisis.
• Watch words. Use language the family member is comfortable with: death vs. end of life; funeral vs. memorial service.
• Use a conversation starter. Ease into the discussion by mentioning an article, book or movie that deals with end-of-life issues.
• Discuss a recently attended funeral. Say, “What did you like? What do you want for your service/burial?”
• Most important: Remind your loved one this is their chance to have their wishes fulfilled. By making these decisions now it will help you and others during a time of sorrow.
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