We live in a world where meaningful tributes intersect with an acute awareness of our environmental responsibility. The result is a desire to leave a lasting legacy in the form of a physical memorial without leaving a negative impact on the planet we cherish so deeply.
Until recent years, a traditional headstone was sufficient to ensure that your name wasn’t forgotten after you said your final goodbye. It provided permanence, inviting your friends and relatives to visit a marked location and remember you. Even after hundreds of years, gravestones continue to speak to us from a bygone era, often leaning at lopsided angles, faded and covered in lichen, but still marking the burial place of someone who once occupied a place in our community.
Today, surrounded by news headlines that impress upon us the importance of protecting our natural environment, the question is being asked whether we can leave something of ecological value after we die that has the same permanence as a headstone. The answer is a resounding ‘yes’ and comes in the form of a memory tree. These growing reminders of a life well lived can provide food for pollinators, shelter for birds, a store for carbon dioxide, and a living headstone with which you will be remembered and commemorated long after you have gone.
A legacy of sustainability is what a memory tree offers. But before we talk more about them, let’s first understand the role that headstones have played throughout history.
A brief history of headstones
History tells us that, broadly speaking, wherever there have been humans there has also been the desire to commemorate the dead with a permanent – or semi-permanent – structure. Take the ancient Egyptians, for example, whose first pyramids were built more than 4,500 years ago. The walls of these iconic structures are decorated with hieroglyphics, describing the life and achievements of the dead. While we might associate that distant culture’s unique preservation of the physical body through mummification, we should also recognise its efforts to preserve the life and times of a person, too.
Stepping forward in time, the Roman Empire produced an extensive collection of funerary art that now sits in museums across the world, astounding historians with its variety, beauty, detail, and poignancy. As Christianity took a foothold in medieval England, churchyards began to spring up that were filled with headstones, a tradition that continued throughout the subsequent eras, through Victorian times and into our modern age.
In short, we have almost always recognised the life and death of the departed through headstones or an alternative physical structure. But today we are looking for something more than simple permanence and perhaps even beauty.
The modern movement towards memory trees
Memory trees symbolise a shift towards a more harmonious relationship between remembrance and the natural environment. Despite having more technology at our fingertips than ever before, we are seeing a collective desire to be closer to nature, positively contributing to its health not only in life but death, too.
Whereas a traditional headstone has very little ecological value, a memory tree provides plenty and requires very little maintenance once it is established, acting both as a symbol of your life and of your dedication to our natural world.
The eco-friendly advantages of a memory tree
Depending on the species, a memory tree can support an extensive number of insects. Its leaves, for example, can provide a well-catered buffet for larvae, whereas flowers could be an excellent source of pollen for bees, hoverflies, wasps, butterflies and moths. These insects, in turn, will feed the birds and bats that might take up shelter in and around the tree, increasing the biodiversity of the area.
As well as supporting wildlife, trees are also an excellent store of carbon, locking it up for the duration of its life. It is an accepted fact that, alongside many other green initiatives, we need to plant more trees. What better way to do so than with one that also represents the life of someone you love?
Can you plant a memory tree on any burial site?
No. You can only plant a memory tree on land that you have explicit permission to do so. Burial sites, such as a graveyard, are often highly controlled areas because they seek to minimise potential disruption to the land, buildings or graves. Within a woodland burial site, you can arrange to have a memory tree planted to commemorate your loved one. These sites are specifically designed to accommodate memory trees while maintaining the natural and ecological balance of the environment.
How long will my memory tree last?
Walk around any churchyard in England and you are likely to find a yew tree (Taxus baccata) that has been growing for hundreds of years. In fact, Perthshire’s Fortingall yew is estimated to be between 2,000 and 3,000 years old, meaning it has witnessed all of modern civilisation and a significant amount of the ancient world too.
Yew is indeed an old species of tree, but there are several others that can last a very long time too. Included in that list are:
- English oak (Quercus robur) – 1,000 years
- Sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa) – 700 years
- Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) – 500 years
- Common beech (Fagus sylvatica) – 400 years
- Common hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) – 400 years
While you might want to plant an English oak – which is long-lived and supports over 280 species of insect – or a yew tree which is almost unbeaten on longevity, your planting choice might be limited by the woodland burial site. That’s not to say these two tree species won’t be included in the site’s specified lists – they are native after all – but space considerations might require you to think a little smaller.
How long your memory tree lasts might also depend on the integrity of the site, including any change of purpose, and other factors such as weather events and quality of care.
We all like to imagine we are positively contributing to our natural surroundings. With a memory tree, those efforts can continue after you pass away, ensuring that your long legacy will be one of ecological positivity. As we continue to embrace a future that values sustainability, memory trees stand as a symbol of our commitment to the environment and the lasting impact we can have on the world around us, even in our absence.
If you would like to arrange a woodland burial, speak to our team today who will guide you through the process with care and compassion.