Warren Roberts’s best friend passed away 10 years ago. He didn’t cry at the funeral, and if you’d asked him how he was in the following years he would’ve told you he was fine. He wasn’t.
Around three years ago Warren began spending more and more time in nature. “You know, the more time I spent with plants and nature, the more I found myself in a space where I could connect with and feel my grief,” he tells me. “It took me seven years and I finally cried. I went from being stuck in unconscious grief to growth.”
“It was one of the greatest experiences of my life, and I learned firsthand the powerful role plants play in healing. Having a place to go to be quiet, to connect, and reflect is incredibly important,” he tells me with emotion in his voice.
Warren found he couldn’t ignore what he’d learnt about the power of nature to heal and connect. “I’d been given this gift by nature, and I couldn’t not pass it on,” he tells me. “So, I had a terrible idea.” The idea was to somehow put cremated remains into trees so that the trees were deeply connected to the life of the person whose ashes it was growing in. The tree would then be a symbol of connection, memorialisation, and hope for grieving family, friends and community members. “The reason it was a terrible idea was that it didn’t work!” he states. Warren spoke to Tim Entwistle, the Director and Chief Executive, Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria, and the head of the Greater Melbourne Cemeteries Trust. Both said it couldn’t be done.
We did tests for six months and every single plant that had cremated remains applied to it died,” Warren tells me.
“Most people don’t realise that scattering ashes is not good for plants – It’s the equivalent of putting three kilograms of oven cleaner onto a tree and expecting it to grow.” Human ashes have a pH of around 11, and most plants require a soil pH of around five to seven. The sodium levels of the ashes are also a problem – according to Warren they’re are usually hundreds of times higher in salt than most plants can tolerate.
After six months of killing trees Warren began to re-evaluate his idea. “My goal was to create a genuine and real connection between the person’s physical matter and the energy of the tree,” he says. “At that stage we couldn’t have it, and couldn’t do it.”
Enter plant scientist Mary Cole. After two years of experimentation she worked out a way to transform cremated human remains into plant food. “The cremated remains are mixed with highly active biological material,” Mary tells me. “The tree is then planted into this mix in the soil, and the microbiology produces a set of conditions that allows the tree to grow.” The combination of ashes, the biological material, and soil allows the microbiology to break down the ash and convert it into food for the plant.
The whole idea is that the tree takes up the essence and elements that were the person. This relationship is very important to the whole concept.”
“It’s about the extension or continuation of life in a different form,” Mary tells me.
It was at this point that things started getting exciting for Warren. Suddenly his “terrible idea” wasn’t so terrible at all. “Instead of being stuck in the past, grieving and feeling disconnected, there was the potential for people to actually connect to something beautiful and present and changing, and to know what they’re connecting to is real. This is what I’m so excited about – we’ve actually created a real transformation process,” Warren says.
Warren’s not-so-terrible idea became Living Legacy Forest. As well as offering infused memorial trees, the Living Legacy concept includes a vast re-forestation program. For each infused memorial tree planted, an additional 200 trees are also planted in the person’s honour, offsetting the carbon created by an average person’s life.
The positive potential for the Living Legacy concept is twofold. Firstly, in the next 10 years over 1.5 million Australians will die. Many cemeteries in major Australian cities are already close to capacity. With the majority of people now choosing cremation over burial, places to grieve and memorialise people are decreasing, meaning a loss of connection within communities. “If we don’t make changes to memorial infrastructure we stand to lose the community connection to an entire generation,” Warren tells me. Secondly, the potential environmental benefits are massive. Warren reckons if only 10% of Australians chose to leave a legacy with trees when they die, the impact would be huge – in the realm of 400 million trees.
Warren’s dream for Living Legacy is to license the technology to government authorities across Australia to enable them to offer the choice to people in their communities. He and his team want to transform cemeteries back into forests, and to create living memorial forests. “Our vision is not only to connect people back to nature and back to plants, it’s also to keep that connection in the community and connect the generations.” He’s already started working with local governments to discuss ways of integrating living memorial trees into public spaces – memorialising people within the communities in which they lived. Currently, the Living Legacy offering is available in 18 locations throughout Melbourne and the team is working to make Living Legacy available nationally.
My vision is that we restore the right for people to be remembered in their own community, while creating beautiful public open spaces that inspire a generation to stand tall & remember their roots,” Warren says.
I most definitely want to be a tree when I die. I’m not sure what species yet, and I don’t really know if I care. After all, life is life is life. Right? One thing I do care about, though, is not being planted in a cemetery, in the city. I’d like to be in the bush – somewhere vast and wild. I ask Warren if this will be a possibility. “In short, yes,” he tells me. Phew. “There’ll be an option to be planted at home or on private property in the near future, and we also want to partner with conservation groups to facilitate memorial reforestation, which would be very exciting.” YES!
Send me to the bush when I’m gone, Warren.