Back to nature: using dead people to grow trees

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A simple ceremony, dark clothing, then coffee and cake; this is a typical Dutch funeral. But a new trend is emerging in the Netherlands: using the ashes of the deceased to grow trees.

In a greenhouse in the village of Nieuwveen, South Holland, beach trees, horse chestnuts and olive trees stand next to each other. A tree planted by Trijneke Blom - a beech - is one of them. Her husband died in 2008. His ashes have been mixed with soil and were used to fertilise the tree. The idea is that the tree will be planted in a nature reserve.

Trijneke Blom explains her decision: "The tree reminds you of your beloved. We loved going out into the countryside. [...] We feel connected to nature. As human beings we are part of nature."

Ashes as fertiliser
So, how are trees grown on ashes? The ashes are mixed with soil and put into a pot. The tree is kept in the nursery for some time to ensure that all the ashes are absorbed - a rain shower could otherwise easily wash them away. Danny van Ramshorst from Remember in Green, who came up with the idea and has patented this method, explains:

"People become sentimentally attached to plants, such as a shrub or a tree they have been given by a family member. As a gardener I was not allowed to touch them. At the time I liked the idea of my ashes being used as fertiliser for a tree, as a tangible memory." 

Ashes in tattoos
Growing trees with human ashes, ashes in firecrackers, using ashes in tattoos: all are permitted in the Netherlands. It hasn't always been this way. Protestant values used to dominate funeral rites. A funeral had to be sober and there was little room for emotion.

Over the course of the 20th century, the influence of Protestantism on society declined and secularisation rose. At the same time the demand for personal interments and memorials rose, as Babs Bakels, curator of the Dutch Funeral Museum, explains:

"In the 1990s, a movement came into existence that was led by artists. They developed all sorts of rituals and objects to decorate funerals. So the Netherlands has become less conservative and more progressive in its views."

A personal funeral
There are limits to the possibilities in the Netherlands. Relatives cannot take the bones of the deceased home. They also need a licence to place a memorial. Ms Bakels expects that not all rites are here to stay.

"Not all rituals will be maintained. A ritual becomes significant when a large group of people understands its meaning. Only then will it become useful. The community has to embrace the ritual. At a personal funeral there are many rituals other people do not understand. This makes it lose strength."

Remember in Green is experiencing a rush of interest. The greenhouse currently holds forty trees. Over 100 trees have been planted. Danny van Ramshorst has also been in contact with interested parties abroad.

Trijneke Blom's beech tree will be placed at a nature reserve this spring. Ms Blom would like to use the tree to keep the memory of her husband alive:

 "A tree is a symbol of life. Even though my husband isn't physically here anymore, he's still present. One of my granddaughters said: 'Grandma, if I come back as a bird than I will build my nest in this tree."

(RNW translation: bw)