Burying Ashes With a Memorial Tree or in a Remembrance Garden

 by J. Malec


If you’ve lost a loved one whose passion was gardening, or a pet who loved digging in the garden, consider giving their cremation ashes a natural burial. The process isn’t much more complicated than planting a tree or garden as normal. You can incorporate a biodegradable cremation urn for ashes or a scattering tube in the planting.

Choosing the site and plant

As you ponder the idea of creating this meditative remembrance garden, you’ll likely begin filtering the many possibilities. Spend a little time walking the property, bring a chair with you, and take time to sit for a moment in potential locations to see if a spot feels right.

What place in the garden or yard did your loved one prefer? Is there a type of tree, shrub or perennial bloom that seemed to define them as a person, or as a pet? My friend had a miniature long-haired Dachshund who died at 16. She planted a fringe tree with her dog’s ashes because the fringe blossom reminded her of her dog’s tail.

Here are a few things to consider:

  • Look at the surrounding flora and fauna. Consider what would fill the need to celebrate your loved one’s life in this creative gesture.
  • What might compliment the plantings surrounding the site, or what could attract desirable wildlife?
  • What plant might reflect the spirit to be honored here?
  • Perhaps you can imagine an added water feature, or a sculpture nearby to give a focal point.
  • Maybe a bench of some sort appears in your mind’s eye, or maybe not.

Are cremation ashes okay for the environment?

You might be wondering – are ashes good for plants? Each person’s cremains are chemically unique, although they are mostly made up of phosphates, calcium, potassium and sodium. Plants require these nutrients in different ratios depending on the species. Macronutrients are things like nitrogen and potassium, which plants require in greater amounts. Micro-nutrients, such as zinc, carbon and manganese exist in plants in a very finely tuned balance. Therefore, adjusting additives to the soil will likely be necessary to balance out the soil chemistry.

Human ashes alone (without organic supplements added to help balance-out available nutrients) will likely hinder plant growth. Therefore, putting ashes in a garden can be detrimental to its survival when not balanced properly. Each tree and shrub is as unique as a person and has specific nutritional and environmental needs. Order saplings from the National Arbor Day Foundation, or purchase from a local nursery, and check with your agricultural extension service for appropriate nutrients to add.

How do I prepare the site for burying ashes with a tree?

One options outside of planting a memorial garden is burying ashes under a tree or with a tree. This can create a gorgeous memorial location that will survive for decades when successful – and maybe even sprout new life under the right conditions. However, tree burials require the same level of attention as a garden memorial. When you are ready to plant a memorial tree, follow these steps.

  1. Dig a hole 1-2 feet wider in diameter than the root structure of your sapling. Loosening the soil will help initial root growth, as well as water and nutrient absorption.
  2. Dig a little deeper still if you want to accommodate a biodegradable urn to place below the tree during the planting process.
  3. If planting a number of smaller plants, first map out the planting on the ground. Using a garden spade, dig holes wide and deep enough to accommodate the roots of the plants.
  4. Once all the holes are dug, you might wish to conduct an ash scattering ceremony or memorial service with friends or family to provide a sense of closure. Then scatter the ashes into each hole from a scattering tube.
  5. Once words and prayers have been shared, and the urn or ashes have been placed in the ground, add any desired fertilizer and a shallow layer of dirt.
  6. Place the root of your plant on top of the urn or ashes. Backfill the soil around the stem and tamp down the earth to ensure a stable footing.
  7. Lastly, add three to six inches of mulch around the bottom of the new planting. This helps keep roots moist, deters competing weeds and insulates roots over the winter.
  8. Give your memorial planting a good soaking and continue to shower with attention at least once a week.

Are there rules about putting ashes in the ground on my property?

The rules as to where and how you can bury ashes vary from place to place. There is no one governing authority that oversees requests for ash disposal across the country. It is safe to assume that if it’s on your property, it’s okay to bury the ashes and plant a memorial tree or shrub. If you’re planning on putting ashes in the ground in a more public location – say a forest or in the soil of your lost loved one’s favorite place – you’ll need to do the research to find out the rules and regulations for ash burial before proceeding. These steps are important for making sure that a memorial garden lasts for a long while.

Do I need to put the ashes in a biodegradable container before planting?

The choice of whether or not to use a biodegradable urn is up to you. You can choose to bury cremains inside a biodegradable cremation urn, such as the Bios Empress Tree Urn. The box includes a Bios Urn, seeds to grow an empress tree, vermiculite, coco-peat, and instructions for planting. You can also plant any other sapling, bush, or flower with this green burial urn as well. The empress tree, also known as a Paulownia Tomentosa, is a deciduous tree in the family Paulowniaceae, native to central and western China. The tree produces fragrant blossoms, and is attractive to bees, butterflies and birds. It grows best in zones 5-9.

Note that Bios urns are also available with maple, oak, redwood, or pine seeds.

Other alternatives to planting a memorial tree with ashes or a remembrance garden include scattering ashes from a scattering tube in a natural setting or keeping a few ashes in a cremation keepsake or piece of cremation jewelry. Whatever you choose, the intention of honoring a loved one can be an expressive act of honoring their spirit and celebrating their life.

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 wildcrafting in the city.

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