Oregon’s first dedicated Natural Burial Ground is licensed at Willow-Witt Ranch near Ashland.
What is a Natural or Green Burial?
Natural or green burial is a return to burials that are simple, non-toxic, and designed to support the reunion of human bodies with nature as effectively and completely as possible.
Whole bodies may be buried in completely biodegradable shrouds or native-wood caskets, without the use of embalming, concrete, metal or plastic. Green burial returns the body’s carbon and other minerals to the earth without energy-intensive incineration. Cremated ashes in biodegradable containers can also be buried. The Forest Conservation Burial Ground will welcome interment ceremonies and visits to gravesites by loved ones for years after.
The natural (‘green’) burial movement began in the 1990’s and has gained popularity and momentum as more people contemplate their relationship to the earth and how their choices at death affect the natural environment and climate change.
The land selected for The Forest has mature conifers and oaks, native shrubs, grasses, and wildflowers. Burial sites will overlook meadows and seasonal wetlands. Paths and trails wind through the cemetery. Green burials are a natural fit in this serene setting. Natural burial grounds are living landscapes, meant to be shared with the living.
The Forest opened in late June, 2020, with our first burial. This project is advised by the Conservation Burial Alliance and anticipates certification by the Green Burial Council. Completion will make The Forest Conservation Burial Ground one of only a dozen sites designated a “Certified Conservation Cemetery” in the US.
The land is a private in-holding within the expanded Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. Owners Suzanne Willow and Lanita Witt see the green cemetery as an extension of their 30+ years of work to restore the forests and wetlands of their 445-acre ranch. They plan to be buried there and recognize that many other people are committed to the natural integrity of land in our unique ecosystem and wish their own burials to support their lifelong ecological values. The Forest Conservation Burial Ground may appeal to them.
While there are cemeteries that allow ‘green’ burials among their conventional graves, this is the first burial ground in Oregon that is dedicated completely to green burial.
A Little History...
Oregon’s first dedicated Natural Burial Ground is licensed near Ashland.
The high country ranch in southern Oregon’s Cascades appeared deserted when Suzanne Willow, Lanita Witt and their daughter Brooke first saw it, covered by 4’ of snow, in December, 1984; the next month they discovered it was for sale…and 10 times the acreage they were seeking. They purchased the 445 acre ranch at 5000’ elevation in January, 1985, and have been restoring forests, wetlands, wildlife habitat, and farming organically on the unique ecosystem for 34 years. From the beginning the family planned to conserve and protect the land they loved and Lanita and Suzanne planned to be buried there, an easy step for family-owned property. Over the years they buried dogs, cats, goats, two horses and occasional chickens in the farm yard and gardens, and had chosen final resting sites for themselves. Pat Gordon had found her own forested nirvana and, like Willow and Witt, had planned to be buried on the land she loved. When Pat could no longer work on her forested property, she sold it to a like-minded couple who agreed that her burial site would remain intact; unfortunately, the couple sold the property after two years, putting Pat’s final-resting-place plans in jeopardy. Pat approached Lanita and Suzanne about the possibility of being buried on their property while Witt and Willow had been simultaneously exploring development of a cemetery as a path for conservation.
The Forest Conservation Burial Ground on Willow-Witt Ranch near Ashland, Oregon was recently approved by Jackson County and licensed by the Oregon Mortuary and Cemetery Board as Oregon’s first dedicated ‘natural’ cemetery. The natural (‘green’) burial movement began in the 1990’s and has gained popularity and momentum as more people contemplate their relationship to the earth and how their choices at death affect the natural environment and climate change. Burial containers in natural or ‘green’ cemeteries are fully biodegradable, often simple shrouds or pine, willow or cardboard boxes. Natural burials do not involve embalming, concrete liners, metals, exotic woods, plastics, or any non-biodegradable containers. Some traditional cemeteries allow ‘green’ burial as an option in an otherwise ‘unnatural’ environment; a conservation cemetery is dedicated to retaining and supporting the natural flora and fauna and to improving wildlife habitat. Lee Webster, long-time green burial advocate, writes,
"Conservation is about people needing and caring for land. They're going to conduct life-affirming activities: Getting married there, baptisms, confirmations, bird-watching, hiking, family picnics--all kinds of things are happening in these spaces because they're conservation spaces first. That's the value of it. It's not just that we're going to put people in the ground without concrete. It's about the big picture and how it affects people, the way we relate to death but also the way we relate to each other in life."
In natural burial, the body is buried 3-4 feet deep, in the active soil zone; all soil removed from the grave is returned, in the strata from which it originated, to maintain and support the complex soil food web. The Forest has been developed to conserve the lands of Willow-Witt Ranch, now a private in-holding in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. Conservation of the unique natural landscape will be enhanced by the minimal development needed for burials, paths and trails. Long term covenants or deed restrictions will ensure conservation values for the entire property are retained.
Willow and Witt formed an educational nonprofit in 2017, to offer outdoor school, camps, and programs for people of all ages to study the connections between humans and the natural world, beginning with the first people to live on the land thousands of years ago. They see The Forest Conservation Burial Ground as an extension of this connection and another way of caring for the land.