Silicon Valley is turning away from gravestones towards trees

Death comes for all of us, but Silicon Valley has, until recently, not come for death. Who can blame them for the hesitation? The death services industry is heavily regulated and fraught with religious and health considerations. The handling of dead bodies doesn’t seem ripe for venture-backed disruption. The gravestone doesn’t seem an obvious target for innovation.

But in a forest south of Silicon Valley, a new startup is hoping to change that. The company is called Better Place Forests . It’s trying to make a better graveyard . “Cemeteries are really expensive and really terrible, and basically I just knew there had to be something better,” says Sandy Gibson, the chief executive of Better Place. “We’re trying to redesign the entire end-of-life experience.”

And so Gibson’s company is buying forests, arranging conservation easements intended to prevent the land from ever being developed, and then selling people the right to have their cremated remains mixed with fertiliser and fed to a particular tree . The Better Place team is this month opening a forest in Point Arena, a bit south of Mendocino; preselling trees at a second California location, in Santa Cruz ; and developing four more spots around the country.

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They have a few dozen remains in the soil already, and Gibson says they have sold thousands of trees to the future dead. Most of the customers are “pre-need” – middle-aged and healthy, possibly decades ahead of finding themselves in the roots. Better Place Forests has raised $12m (£9.4m) in venture capital funding. And other than the topic of dead bodies coming up fairly often, the office is a normal San Francisco start-up, with around 45 people bustling around and frequenting the roof deck with a view of the water .

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There is a certain risk to being buried in a start-up forest. When the tree dies, Better Place says it will plant a new one at that same spot. But a redwood can live 700 years, and almost all startups in Silicon Valley fail, so it requires a certain amount of faith that someone will be there to install a new sapling . Still, Gibson says most customers, especially those based in the Bay Area , like the idea of being part of a start-up even after life. The first few people to buy trees were called founders.

“You’re part of this forest, but you’re also part of creating this forest,” says Gibson. “People love that.” Customers come to claim a tree for perpetuity. This now costs between $3,000 (for those who want to be mixed into the earth at the base of a small young tree or a less desirable species of tree) and upward of $30,000 (for those who wish to reside forever by an old redwood). For those who don’t mind spending eternity with strangers, there is also an entry-level price of $970 to enter the soil of a community tree. (Cremation is not included.)

A steward then installs a small round plaque in the earth like a gravestone. When the ashes come, the team at Better Place digs a 3ft X 2ft trench at the roots of the tree. Then, at a long table, the team mixes the person’s cremated remains with soil and water, sometimes adding other elements to offset the naturally highly alkaline and sodium-rich qualities of bone ash. It’s important the soil stay moist: bacteria will be what breaks down the remains.

Because the forest is not a cemetery, rules are much looser. For example: pets are allowed. Often customers want their ashes to be mixed with their pets’ ashes, Gibson says. “Pets are a huge thing. It’s where everyone in your family can be spread. This is your tree.” “Spreading” is what they call the ash deposit. The trench is a “space”, the watering can is a “vessel”, the on-site sales staff are “forest stewards”. When it comes to both death and start-ups, euphemisms abound.

It’s all pretty low-tech: mix ashes in with dirt and put a little placard in the soil. But there is a tech element: for an extra fee, customers can have a digital memorial video made. Walking through the forest, visitors will be able to scan a placard and watch a 12-minute digital portrait of the deceased talking straight to camera about his or her life. Some will allow their videos to be viewed by anyone walking through the forest, others will opt only for family members. Privacy settings will be decided before death.

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As cities are running out of room to bury the dead, the cost of funerals and caskets has increased more than twice as fast as prices for all commodities. In the Bay Area, a traditional funeral and plot burial often costs $15,000 to $20,000. The majority of Americans are now choosing to be cremated.

“The death services market is very big – $20bn a year – and customer approval is low,” says Jon Callaghan, a partner at True Ventures, an investor in Better Places. “The product is broken.” The firm’s other investments include Blue Bottle, Peloton and Fitbit , and Callaghan sees consumers of those products as ones who would be interested also in Better Place trees.

$20bn

The annual amount in the death services market

“Every industry seems to have its time when things get wild,” says Nancy Pfund, the founder and a managing partner at DBL Partners, which led early funding. “It’s been mobile apps, it’s been cars, it’s been fake meat, and now it is death care. But we have to come up with a better name than ‘death care’. Maybe it’s legacy care. Maybe it’s eternity management.”

Around 75 million Americans will reach the life expectancy age of 78 between 2024 and 2042, Better Place suggests. The company’s pitch is that tree burial is good for the environment, the location is more beautiful than a traditional graveyard – and it’s cheaper as well.

Pfund also sees these forests as a way to monetise conservation. Actively managing a forest is expensive, so much so that financially strained state park systems are having to turn down gifts of land. Conservation easements, an agreement between an organisation and the government to preserve land, have become more popular as a solution. “No one has really made a big business monetising conservation, nothing that could scale,” Pfund says. “So a bell went off when we heard this pitch.”

Those tracking the death services industry are more sceptical about how disruptive it will be. John O’Conner, who runs Menlo Park Funerals, says more than 90 per cent of his clients opt for cremation. “Most of my people scatter on their own,” he adds. “They just go at night, scatter grandma, have a cup of champagne , and every day they drive by that park they know grandma is there. Why would they pay $20,000 to go to a memorial grove when they can scatter at any little park they want to for free?”

That act is, technically, illegal. “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” O’Conner says. He adds that he knew of a few golf courses in the region that had to put up signs imploring people not to scatter guest remains there.

Ben Deci, a spokesman for California’s Cemetery and Funeral Bureau, says Better Place Forests’ activities do not fall under the bureau’s purview. “It looks to me like they’ve just purchased large tracts for forest land and are allowing people to disperse their ashes, and they say here ‘This’ll be your tree or whatever,’” Deci says. “You don’t need our approval to do that.”

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Gibson does have a permit from the state verifying him as a cremated remains disposer. “But that’s not quite the right way to think about it,” he says. One recent day, Gibson walked through his 80 acres of Santa Cruz forest where about 6,000 trees are available, many wrapped in different-coloured ribbons, waiting to be chosen.

“Some people want a tree that is totally isolated, and some people really want to be around people and be part of a fairy ring ,” Gibson says. “Some people will come in and they’ll fall in love with a stump. People love stumps,” he adds, pointing out a few trees people bought just for the nearby stumps. “They’ve got a lot of personality.”

Younger people often choose younger trees because they like the idea of growth. Debra Lee, a retired administrative assistant in San Jose, felt immediate kinship with the madrone tree she chose. “She’s about 60 years old, and I’m 63,” Lee says of the mature evergreen with dark red bark. “Looking at her growth pattern you can see things have been hard at times because she’s kind of curved, but she made it to the top to get to the sunlight.” When a customer chooses her tree, as Lee did, she cuts the ribbon off in what Better Place calls the ribbon ceremony.

As Gibson hiked across the Santa Cruz forest in a sweater and work boots, he noticed a rhododendron , his mother’s favourite flower, growing out of a stump. Both his parents died when he was young, and, at 12, Gibson was adopted by his half brother. He is now 36, and, since then, he has spent many afternoons in Toronto at his parents’ grave site, set on a noisy corner, with a shiny black headstone that reflects traffic.

“You remember them dying, you remember the memorial service, and you remember the image of their final resting place,” Gibson says. He says he is haunted by that badly designed grave site. “It’s comically bad.” Visiting their grave in 2015, he decided to quit his job running a marketing automation company. He would make a better graveyard. “A lot of investors laughed at us when I first pitched this,” Gibson says. “People don’t really like thinking about this.”