“… I’m starting a forest cemetery company, named Better Place."
I get a strange look every time I respond to people asking me what I’m up to these days. If someone had answered me that way 13 months ago, I probably would have given them the same look back. But I’ve never been more proud of what I do than when I explain what we’re doing with Better Place Forests: protecting the most beautiful places in the world by creating the first sustainable alternative to cemeteries.
How It All Began
Back in late February 2015, I came across a sketch that was going viral online by an Italian design firm. The concept was called Capsula Mundi, and it illustrated a concept of burial pods, where dead bodies would be put in the pods and trees could be grown from it. I was interested enough to email it onto Sandy, who also thought it was fascinating.
Coincidentally, a few days later it was the birthday of Sandy’s mother, who passed away when he was young. He called me shortly after his visit and was clearly excited. He told me that when he was standing there in front of the headstone, he had a clear realization that cemeteries as they currently exist don’t provide what he wanted. Standing in the middle of a city in front of a tombstone was not how he wanted to remember someone he loved so much.
We discussed each other's ideal setting for remembering people that died, the most beautiful places either of us had ever been, and if wishing for better memorial and cemetery options was something that affected other people as well. Some quick searches later that day revealed two very interesting facts: 1) that traditional burial was very expensive and 2) that more and more of the population was being cremated.
That evening I went out to dinner with girlfriend Samantha and told her about our call and the idea in general. As I've pitched hundreds of ideas to Sam, most of which have been greeted with casual indifference, it was interesting that she immediately loved it and told me she would want to be a willow tree somewhere beautiful.
Sam also told me the story of being asked to spread her grandmother's ashes in the St. Lawrence River and how it was a much more difficult and less satisfying process than she had thought it would be. She couldn't get close enough to the river due to a steep river bank and that unlike in some movies and commercials, ashes don't necessarily get picked up by the wind and drift off beautifully where you want them to go.
I texted Sandy and told him that we needed to keep exploring this idea as there seemed to be a huge unmet need that this idea addressed.
An Incredible Coincidence
About 6 weeks later in April 2015, Sandy was out to dinner catching up with his old friend Jamie who had just returned from a year-long sabbatical with his wife, Karen. He was telling Sandy about all of his incredible experiences that year and brought up a specific memory he had from Hawaii that same February.
One evening he and his wife Karen were at a surf break called Pine Trees, named for some large trees that over look the break from beach. It's also famous because a well-known surfer who frequented the break had his ashes spread out in the waves. Jamie remarked to his wife about it would have been great if they spread the ashes by one of the large pine trees overlooking the break so that his family would have a physical memorial that they could touch.
After finishing his story, Jamie then asked Sandy, “so what are you and Brad up to these days?"
Sandy and I had been busy fleshing out the idea with a prototype website and basic brochure so we could show the concept to other people to get their feedback and so far the response had been overwhelmingly positive. The fact that Jamie had had his experience in Hawaii and was interested in discussing the idea further got the three of us excited enough to start to explore even further.
Shining Light on an Arcane Industry
Throughout the summer of 2015, the three of us dove into the burial industry, unearthing tons of interesting insights, industry quotes, and the underlying reasons why people choose the options they do. Aside from being completely fascinating, there was one particular trend that stood out above everything else: in 1970, the national cremation rate was 5%; it currently stands around 48%; and in 2030 it’s projected to be 70%. Cremation is taking over traditional burial as the preferred after-life option. But this begged the question — what are people doing with all those ashes?
As it turns out, not that much. Over 75% of people who currently choose cremation don’t buy any memorialization option at the cemetery, actively don’t want to take the ashes home, but do so out of a lack of other options.
In fact, we were told that in a best case scenario, cemeteries end up providing memorialization options to less than 50% of people who choose cremation.
Now that we knew we had a powerful demographic trend and an underserved need, Better Place started to take real shape. The idea was to create cremation-only cemeteries that fulfilled our idealization of what would be the perfect place to celebrate and remember your loved ones that have passed away. We endlessly discussed our visions for what a Better Place cemetery would look like and tested our ideas and theories with Google Insights, a newly-released online polling tool. It turns out that across the board, the number one priority for people when it comes to spreading ashes is the beauty of the location which fit with my gut feeling and personal preference.
This led us to look up iconic locations all over North America that were prized for their unique geography. An interesting realization was that if we turned these incredible places into cemeteries, they could never be redeveloped. We didn’t start with the idea of land preservation, but it quickly became something very core to the idea. In any case, we had a very good idea of what a Better Place Forest would look like.
We then had both a problem and a solution. A huge unmet need for the massive trend towards cremation, and the concept of a forest where families can reserve trees and spread ashes into the soil around the tree. The trees would be GPS marked, providing a family memorial for future generations to visit, and a Better Place Forest would be the idealization of the most beautiful place where you could remember someone that you love.
Putting the Plan into Action
By the fall, Jamie, Sandy and I were starting to feel more and more compelled that Better Place had huge potential as a business, and was something we would be proud to introduce into the world. We also knew from previous experiences that new ventures are difficult, especially when it’s so different from your day to day expertise. But with the experience Sandy and I had in startups, tech and marketing, along with Jamie's experience in real estate, development and financing from his previous career, we were confident we had the people in place to bring Better Place into the world.
Introducing a new concept into a very traditional industry is an immense amount of work, but I've never been working with more talented and focused people. It's partly the scope of the idea, but it's also the shared feeling that we all want to be a part of something meaningful in the next phase of our careers. With Better Place, I see an opportunity positively affect millions of people, permanently protect millions of acres of the most beautiful natural areas of North America, and help build a company with a mission and a culture that I want to dedicate my life to.
In the next few months, we’ll settle on the location (right now it's looking like a coastal redwood forest with views of the Pacific ocean...) for our first park and begin the design work required to make visiting a Better Place Forest one of the most moving and emotional experiences you can have. We want to reinvent the cemetery to celebrate the lives of our loved ones in a way that anyone visiting a traditional cemetery would not think to be possible.
How You Can Help Us
Getting Better Place to this point has not been easy, but every time I hear people say, “I was just talking about this with my partner”, “that’s what I would want”, or “I wish you existed 5 years ago”, I grow more and more confident that this idea will take off.
For people that know that Better Place is what they want, we’re offering the chance to reserve your place in the first Better Place Forest. Reserving now will guarantee you first choice of tree in the park and your name will be engraved on our Founders' Wall. If this is of interest, either sign up to the newsletter or see our reservation options.
For everyone else, if you find Better Place interesting, think this concept should exist, and want to help us permanently preserve the most beautiful places in the world by turning them into sustainable cemeteries, any show of support would be much appreciated.
By joining our email list for updates (below), liking us on Facebook, and following us on Instagram, you can show your support and join us on this journey to introduce the Better Place concept to the world.
Written by Brad Milne
Co-founder & COO of Better Place Forests