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How to Plant a Tree with Cremation Ashes

With tree pod burials and memorial gardens growing in popularity, the idea of growing a memorial sapling with a lost loved one’s ashes can be one that provides comfort and a fitting burial. It’s possible to plant a tree with ashes with urns specifically designed to biodegrade in the environment and doing so is an easy process – one that can provide you with a beautiful space to grieve. Do a little research, plan ahead, and create your own memorial planting from scratch. All you need is a biodegradable urn and a sapling of your choosing. Some cremation urn manufacturers provide all you need to do the planting.

The University of Minnesota (“UMN”) Extension Service recommends the following steps for planting a seedling:

  • first identify the planting site
  • examine the soil for sand and clay content, and if possible, perform an overnight percolation test for suitable drainage
  • consider sun and wind conditions
  • identify the hardiness zone for your location, as well as the optimum time of year for planting.

Looking for a biodegradable urn?

What is a perfect urn for a memorial planting? The Acorn Urn is used widely in the UK, and was developed by Peter Rock, co-owner of ARKA Ecopod, Ltd. This cremation urn is part of a larger ‘Natural Burial’ movement, led by Cynthia Beal, founder of The Natural Burial Company. Uniquely designed to resemble an oak tree seed, this biodegradable urn is optimal for burial with an accompanying planting.

The urn is handmade from a mix of mulberry and recycled paper. The rich colors come from non-toxic dye. Cremains can be stored in the urn until the time is right to plant. Before planting, remember to empty ashes from their original poly bag into the biodegradable container since plastic will not break down readily, unless the bag itself is biodegradable.

Biodegradable urns of all types are specifically crafted to disintegrate in land or dissolve in water. Our planning guide “Green Burials: A Growing Trend / Biodegradable Urns and What to Expect” provides information on considerations when choosing a biodegradable urn.

Once I’ve chosen a memorial seedling, how do I go about planting?

A question many people have is, "can human ashes be used as fertilizer?" Each person’s cremains are chemically unique, although all are primarily composed of phosphates, calcium, potassium and sodium. While these chemicals are nutrients that plants need, according to The University of Cambridge’s Naked Scientists, “All plants ultimately require a balance of what we call macronutrients which are things like nitrogen and potassium and also, micro-nutrients such as zinc and carbon and manganese. These all exist in plants in a very, very finely tuned balance. An excess of any one of these individually can have an impact on plant growth."

Woodland burial ground in the UK

Hinton Woodland Burial Ground in the UK - photo by Chris Downer

    Without organic supplements added to help balance out available nutrients, human ashes alone may actually hinder plant growth. Each tree or shrub is as unique as a person and has specific nutritional environmental needs. Start with the chosen planting site and the type of plant you are considering. Once you’ve identified these, you can improve the soil as necessary with the missing nutrients. Here are a few suggestions:

    • order saplings from the National Arbor Day Foundation, or
    • purchase from a local nursery, and
    • check with your extension service, such as UMN Extension Service, for appropriate nutrients to add.

    Instructions to prepare the site for planting:

    1. Dig a hole one to two feet wider in diameter than the root structure of your sapling. Loosening the soil will help initial root growth, as well as with water and nutrient absorption.
    2. Dig a little deeper still to accommodate the biodegradable urn, pressed-paper or natural fiber urn that will precede your sapling in placement.
    3. Consider sharing a ceremony or memorial service with friends or family at the planting site before a sapling is put in the ground.
    4. Following the memorial service, place the urn in the ground, add nutrient supplements, and a shallow layer of dirt.
    5. Place the root of your sapling on top of the urn. Backfill the soil around the sapling and tamp down the earth to ensure a stable footing for your tree or shrub.
    6. Lastly, add three to six inches of mulch around the bottom of the new planting until about a foot or so away from the trunk. This helps keep roots moist, deters competing weeds and insulates roots over the winter.

    Give your memorial planting a good soaking and continue to shower with water and love at least once a week.

    Streamlining the Planting Process

    Some companies are now manufacturing urns that make the planting of the seed with cremation ashes an easier process. For instance, The Bios Urn made the job easy by offering an innovative and complete package. It not only holds the cremation ashes but also contains properly prepared soil and the seed (maple or pine). This unique tree urn is a fully biodegradable urn that when buried with the cremation ashes grows into a tree of your choice.

    With some dedication, a cremains tree burial isn’t out of reach. By considering the many factors that go into a sapling’s growth, you can create a beautiful memorial for your lost loved one that will grow to new heights – offering them a chance to live again in a sense. Remember to check with ecological services to find the solution that’s right for you and your family. Another options worth considering is planting a memorial garden by spreading the ashes of your lost loved one across the soil – helping flowers to grow from their cremains can create another type of beautiful resting place that may honor their memory. 

    Whichever way you decide to go many people are discovering that the growth of a tree from the cremains of a loved one is incredibly satisfying and joyful. It's hard to imagine something more natural.

    J. Malec is a visual artist and writer whose work often deals with themes related to loss and healing. She lives in Minneapolis, and spends much of her time practicing permaculture in the city.