FALLS VILLAGE — Sandy Gibson was in a difficult place emotionally. Having lost both of his parents by the time he was 11-years-old — his father due to an unexpected stroke, and his mother was lost to cancer — he spent much of his early life sadly visiting his parents’ graves in a dreary, Toronto cemetery.
“I remember hearing and seeing traffic surrounding their final resting place and hating the idea that this cemetery didn’t represent their legacy.” said Gibson. “One day, as I was visiting my mother’s grave, I thought to myself that she deserved a better place than this.” So, he called his best friend Brad Milne, and set out to create what would become “Better Place Forests.” Launched in 2015, the initiative allows families to “write better endings to their loved ones’ stories.” Gibson is CEO and co-founder of the organization and Milne is COO and co-founder.
A memorial forest is a natural, sustainable alternative to a traditional cemetery, and is different from a cemetery because it features no burials or grave plots. According to Gibson, choosing Better Place Forests allows customers to “continue the cycle of life” by mixing cremated ashes with soil and then returning the ashes to the base of a selected private tree.
“A package with Better Place Forests includes choosing a private tree, a custom memorial marker (reminiscent of markers used by the United States Geological Service to mark important locations), and having a private and personalized memorial service,” explained Gibson. Additionally, Better Place Forests will plant an impact tree in “affected forests” in a loved one’s honor in partnership with the non-profit organization “One Tree Planted.” “When someone chooses Better Place Forests as their resting place, they’re choosing to return to the earth in a beautiful forest and they’re also helping to protect that forest for future generations.”
Better Place Forests chose a 130-acre forestland site in Falls Village as the East Coast’s first memorial forest. The land features expansive views 30-plus miles to the south and views to the northwest as far as the Catskills of New York.
“Our team had been seeking the perfect location for a memorial forest to serve the East Coast, and we’re excited to officially expand to this region,” Gibson explained. “The Litchfield Hills was chosen thanks to its excellent location and accessibility from major metros, widespread community support for the idea, and its open, lush green land, unique biodiversity and natural beauty that makes this forest an ideal area to conserve. Northwestern Connecticut is stunning. It is located just an hour’s drive from downtown Hartford, two hours from New York City, and is an easy day trip from the larger Boston and Providence metropolitan areas.”
Gibson said the Falls Village site for the Better Place Forests received unanimous approval by local stakeholders and support from the community itself. “Building positive relationships with the surrounding community is a big priority for us, and as we grow, we intend to hire locally for our team as well.”
The memorial is not yet opened to the public, but the organization recently provided the opportunity for those interested to reserve a tree in advance and has seen very “positive feedback” from this initiative so far, said Gibson. The forest is set to open in 2021 for in-person tours, following CDC guidelines due to COVID-19. Those interested can become a part of a Founder’s Circle by reserving a tree with a monetary deposit of $95.
Offered Gibson, “We received unanimous approval by local stakeholders and have spoken with several other local leaders, like Brendan Boepple, Land Protection Manager of the Housatonic Valley Association, about this property. We’ve enjoyed working directly with community stakeholders to ensure we bring a memorial forest that they find respectable to the town and the community.”
According to Better Place Forests, Susan Kelsey, the property owner that sold the land to Better Place Forests, said, “The selling of 300 Music Mountain Road to Better Place Forests comes with mixed emotions. I am saddened that the land that has become such an integral part of my being will no longer be the place I call `home.’ The solitude, peace and calm that this property has afforded me for more than 30 years will soon all just become pages of my past. But, selling to Better Place Forests represents the culmination of my service to my Town, my gift to Falls Village, so to speak. Already I have been out scouting the forest for my ideal tree; a tree where some day my ashes will be spread and of which I will eventually become a part. I have my eye on one majestic white oak in particular; a place where once again I can call `home’.”
Selectman David Barger told the organization, “When I look at new and innovative projects, I aim to see them through the lens of what’s best for Falls Village: what will benefit the town, give back to the community, and continue to protect its natural beauty? Better Place Forests fits the bill. Not only will they help conserve our forestland, they are seeking to hire locally and have already begun building positive relationships here. Their memorial forest will be a welcome addition to what Falls Village has to offer.”
The process of establishing a Better Place Forest varies from each state and community, explained Gibson. “This property falls under the jurisdiction of the Town of Canaan (Falls Village), Connecticut. With unanimous approval, we were granted a special permit from the township on August 20, 2020 in support of our land use. With this approval, we’ve transitioned to preparing for launch which includes refining our design vision, determining the sections of the forest for our use, and important forestry maintenance work to reduce the risk of fire and disease. In the future, we’ll also be hiring local forest stewards and arborists to aid in taking care of this beautiful land.”
A final resting place with Better Place Forests in Falls Village starts at $4,900. Gibson reported that the cost of a traditional burial, plot and headstone costs around $15,000, “a heavy load on a grieving family.” The latter figure was sourced from the National Funeral Directors Association. The median cost of a funeral with viewing, vault and burial in 2019 was $9,135 per person, while a headstone and plot can range from $1,700 to $10,000, depending on location, according to Choice Mutual.
Better Place Forests has five locations in four states including California, Arizona, Minnesota and now Connecticut. The organization recently opened its fourth location in Scandia, Minnesota (named Better Places Forest St. Croix Valley), where it also received unanimous support from local stakeholders, as well as from Scandia mayor Christine Maefsky.
Said Gibson, “We plan on opening more forests across the country in 2021.Since opening our first, in California in 2015, thousands of people have made their end-of-life plans with Better Place Forests. Most of our customers are pre-need, meaning they are planning ahead for themselves and family. Just in the last year, we’ve been able to double our customer base, and revenues have grown 3.2 times since May of this year. We believe this shows that people are increasingly seeking alternative end-of-life options.”
Visit www.BetterPlaceForests.com for more information.