It seems that many people in our modern American culture think of death as a dreary and fearful topic. There has been a movement over the last couple of decades with the idea of making funerals more about a celebration of life than about disheartened feelings around death. In my humble opinion, there is nothing wrong with mourning nor with celebrating (or even both) during the time surrounding the loss of a loved one. Living and dying are not opposites but rather necessary pieces of existence, and at Carolina Memorial Sanctuary, we offer more than just burial.
Because of the land conservation element of what we do, death and dying are balanced in my work as Steward, especially by the planting of native trees, shrubs, grasses and wildflowers. Memorial plantings – when a tree, bush, or shrub is planted in memory of someone – are an option for guests, families and friends, or even by third party benefactors. The intention is multi-faceted from restoring native species and habitats, to landscaping and beautification, to commemorating a friend or relative.
Memorial plantings can be especially powerful at the time of death. When someone we love dies, planting something living in their honor can help remind us of the connection between death and life – that even when someone or something dies, it creates space for new life. It can take on even greater significance when a tree or shrub is planted directly above or near the grave, knowing that the plant, a living being, is closely connected to the body of a loved one who is no longer here. We see life continue and there’s something about this that can be very comforting. And some individuals simply choose to have a planting on their grave in place of a more “traditional” marker such as a headstone.
At Carolina Memorial Sanctuary, memorial plantings go even further and help support the restoration and conservation of the land. During the stages leading up to our acquisition of the Sanctuary property, in order to receive a conservation easement, we were required to have a baseline study to identify the extant flora and fauna. We identified 4 or 5 major habitats and a few minor ones on our small 11 acre sanctuary. Although our burial space is only divided into 3 categories, we nonetheless have a great deal of diversity. This is one of the blessings of our little area of Henderson county, in southern Appalachia: biodiversity!
We want to accommodate all memorial planting requests and sometimes it becomes challenging. In addition to supporting the wishes of our guests, friends and family, the Sanctuary also needs to protect the land. In part this means maintaining the various habitats in ways that support the needs of the non-human residents too. When we began the clearing of what is now our Southeastern Meadow habitat, we had several thousand trees mulched in place; mostly Bradford pears (an exotic and invasive species) and Tulip Poplars (a rapid-growing native that tends toward mono-culturing). In addition to creating a meadow space, the clearing of invasive trees and thick undergrowth also made for some really beautiful burial spots. To maintain the Southeastern Meadow, we have to be careful about what we plant and where; if we planted a tree over every grave, the meadow would become a forest again, thus defeating the purpose of restoring the native habitats. This goes for all of our habitats, which is why we have a restoration plan in place (also required to receive a conservation easement) that dictates where planting can take place.
When someone requests a memorial planting at a gravesite, we take into account the burial location and determine if planting is appropriate. If it is, we offer options from our list of approved plants for that particular habitat. If we are unable to plant at the gravesite, there are so many other areas on the property for plantings that help with our restoration and conservation efforts – all of which can still be done with your loved one in mind. Purchasing a memorial plant for the woodlands is a great way to help with land restoration. We have two distinct woodlands (not including our stand of Eastern Hemlocks) on our property: one is mixed hardwoods, the other is usually referred to as successional, and consists of mostly more short-lived pines. We will have opportunities throughout the next several years to do plantings of trees and shrubs in these forest areas.
When you choose a memorial planting, whether it’s in the memory of a loved one or simply to help support land restoration, not only do you get the sense of feeling good about the offering, you also get to give the gift of renewal to the greater community of living and dying at the Sanctuary.
See our Memorial Gifting and Contribution page to learn more about the different ways you can honor a loved one and/or contribute towards land conservation and restoration at Carolina Memorial Sanctuary.