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A Berkshire forest blossoms into a new kind of graveyard

Florida, Mass., is home to a new-fangled cemetery on stunning, tree-studded land.

Scott Roycroft (left), director of land use and entitlement, and Mark Kehke, chief forest and conservation officer, both of Better Place Forests, walked a new trail in the woods. In November, Better Place Forests paid a private landowner $795,000 for 200 acres of mostly wooded land in Drury, Mass. The San Francisco-based company preserves and protects natural wooded areas so cremated remains can be spread at the base of trees.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

FLORIDA, Mass. – Just for a moment, it takes your breath away.

Pine and birch branches here are dusted with a soft, fresh coat of pristine January snow and the mid-morning panoramic view of the frosted Berkshires is stunningly beautiful.

It’s a place where a visitor might pause, reflect, and think: I could stay here forever.

Now, some are planning to do just that.

Because if you look closely at the hemlocks and the sugar maples in the woods here, you’ll notice that beneath their barren branches some carry small green metallic tags that identify them as future memorial trees.

A place where someday loved ones will gather. Perhaps they’ll hold hands. A guitar will be strummed. Songs will be sung. Prayers will be said.


And then the mortal remains of moms and dads, sons and daughters will be spread at the base of a stately old, tall tree and forever committed to the earth.

Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. Eternal rest.

Mark Kehke, chief forest and conservation officer for Better Place Forests, stood next to a tagged tree on the property. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

“Yeah, it’s a different way of doing things,” said Mark Kehke, the 62-year-old chief forest and conservation officer of Better Place Forests, which in late 2020 paid a private landowner $795,000 for 200 acres of mostly wooded land here.

“You come in and say, ‘We’re going to give people the right to spread their cremains around the base of a tree,’” Kehke told me as we walked through the snowy woods here recently. “And people say, ‘Well, I’ve never heard of that before. What are you talking about?’

“But it’s interesting how quickly they get past that and you hear people say, ‘That’s pretty cool. That’s something I could be interested in.’ It’s a different way of doing things.”

It certainly is.

The death industry in the United States is big business, estimated at $20 billion a year. At $3,000 to $4,000, cremation can cost far less than a traditional $7,000 funeral.


And, some argue, the business model is broken, or in need of reinvention that does not require the traditional trappings of an American death: embalming and caskets, limousines and cemetery burials in concrete vaults beneath marbled markers.

Across the country, that’s just what Sonja Bedford concluded in the summer of 2018 when the man she had met at a Christmas party and then spent 43 years with died of colon cancer in California, where they had made their home.

“Six years between diagnosis and death,” Bedford told me. “He beat the odds by one year.”

Neither she nor John Davis had been particularly religious. But when they found a place where the redwoods met the ocean, they knew that they had found a final resting place.

“We loved being in the woods,” Bedford said. “We loved the creeks. I remember once asking John if he believed in God and he said, ‘All you have to do is look out in nature.’

“I’ll always carry that with me. Pay attention. Listen. Observe. Be quiet.”

Those who observe a life’s code like that are embracing this untraditional funeral, a funeral where the church is a mountainside, where the music is birdsong. Where the prayers can be heard in the whisper of the wind.

An 1800s barn in the woods on the property made for a pleasant rustic scene. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

This new-fangled cemetery here is on land that used to belong to Dwight Brown, who grew up on the property and as a young man never strayed far from it except for four years when he was in the Air Force, which in 1967 sent him to Vietnam for a year.


“The property has many sugar maples on it,” Brown told me. “I have spent many a spring making maple syrup. I would tap the trees, collect the sap, and boil it down to make the syrup. This one particular tree always produced a very sweet sap that produced a very delicious maple syrup.

“That inspired me to choose that tree. Out of several thousands of trees, that’s the one I most desired to be underneath, I guess you could say.”

He’s 75 now. He doesn’t know what the rest of his life will bring.

“I’m very much at peace with that,” he said. “Both my wife’s and my folks are all in traditional cemeteries. Everyone knows what that feeling is like. But this is kind of a celebration feeling.”

A vista view from the property of the Berkshires on a winter day.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

That’s exactly what Kehke had in mind when he got into this business.

His father made clear that he wished to be cremated, his ashes spread off the east end of Catalina Island in Southern California.

“Which we did 27 years ago,” Kehke told me. “But it’s always resonated with me. Anytime I’m in that area and I look out and see the east end of Catalina Island, I think: That’s where dad is. And so, when I started thinking about this, it’s very much the same thing — thinking about a place where your family member is.


“They’re in this forest. They’re in this wonderful, beautiful place. You know they’re here. You know they’re in a place you can go visit. It’s permanently protected so they’ll always be here.”

There has yet to be a service here in the Berkshires. But family members are now able to select their trees and the location. The cost will vary depending on the tree selected and its location but it will average about $8,500.

Mark Kehke, chief forest and conservation officer for Better Place Forests, knelt by a sugar maple tree and brushed snow away to dig soil at the base of the tree by hand to show how cremains would be dispersed and mixed into the soil.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

There is something profound about an end-of-life ceremony under the canopies of the trees.

Bedford remembers when she said goodbye to her beloved John in 2019.

She had selected a redwood bathed in sunshine because John loved the sun.

There was a water pitcher and a mixing bucket and tools to rake the forest’s floor.

“It was July,” she recalled. “It was a beautiful, full-sun day. Because we’re close to the coast, there were a few clouds. But if there had been any fog earlier, it had cleared.”

She chose a poem by D.H. Lawrence to be read at his service.

And then it was time to say goodbye.

“We mixed the ashes because you have to mix them with the soil so the nutrients can go into the soil,” Bedford said. “As it was explained to me, the tree takes up the nutrients. And as the bone is broken down by the soil, they travel up into the canopy.”

After an hour, the ceremony was over.

And Bedford knew just where John was.


His spirit belonged to nature now.

And, forever, to her.

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.