Finding eternal rest, at the foot of a tree


By AGENCY
  • People
  • Thursday, 07 Dec 2023

A couple stands in front of a group of trees to choose a place where they will rest after their death in a forest sanctuary in Muttersholtz, eastern France. Photos: Patrick Hertzog/AFP

No grave, nor a wreath. Instead, eternal rest in an urn buried at the foot of a tree.

This alternative to cemeteries, known as sanctuary forests, are spreading in eastern France, an ecological project inspired by neighbouring Germany.

Gabrielle and Jean-Pierre Grasser, 81 and 85, take a walk in the woods at Muttersholtz, some 40km (25 miles) south of Strasbourg, not far from the border with Germany.

Near an oak tree, a commemorative slab emerges from underneath fallen leaves. It bears a name, a surname and dates of birth and death, marking the spot where an urn has been buried. Three small, inconspicuous plaques indicate the presence of other urns.

The couple from Barr, some 20km away, have come to discover the forest cemetery which opened in March. As they favour being cremated when the time comes, they are mulling what will happen to their ashes.

"The idea of eternal rest in a setting such as this appeals to me more than a niche in cemetery funeral urn," said Gabrielle.

"I find it very relaxing and it's also in tune with the times in terms of ecology."

"It brings us a little closer to nature, which we love," added her husband.

"Several people have come to have a look and have reserved a space," said Muttersholtz deputy mayor Luc Dettwyler.

A photograph taken in Muttersholtz, eastern France, showing an identification sign displayed on the trunk of a tree in the forest sanctuary.A photograph taken in Muttersholtz, eastern France, showing an identification sign displayed on the trunk of a tree in the forest sanctuary.

The spaces allocated around a majestic oak tree were "almost all taken".

The commune, home to 2,200 people, launched its project in 2017 after a visit to a similar initiative some 30km away on the German side of the border.

An area has been turned into a communal forest sanctuary. Some oak, hazelnut and acacia trees have been selected and almost 500 urns will be able to be buried there.

The 30-year leases cost between €600 and €1,000 (RM3,055 and RM5,092) depending on the size of the tree and are available to people who live outside Muttersholtz for an additional €200 (RM1,018).

A meditation area has also been created with carved stones to allow young and old to sit.

"It's a place which we try to leave as close as possible to nature," said Dettwyler.A photograph taken in Muttersholtz showing a paving stone with a commemorative plaque in a forest sanctuary where people can choose the place where they will rest after their death.A photograph taken in Muttersholtz showing a paving stone with a commemorative plaque in a forest sanctuary where people can choose the place where they will rest after their death.

Return to nature

Well established in Germany, the concept of a forest sanctuary or cinerary for urns is only a recent development in France.

Arbas, a village in the southwestern Haute-Garonne region, was the first to try out the idea in France in 2019, but the prefecture suspended its project.

But other more urban communes picked up on the idea, including Strasbourg suburb Schiltigheim, population 32,000.

Unlike Muttersholz, whose project developed within an existing forest, Schiltigheim's trees were planted in a part of the town cemetery specifically earmarked for a forest sanctuary, with a capacity for 1,760 urns.

For civil registry assistant Bernard Jenaste, the space bears a "very strong symbolism" and "there is a link between the living tree and the deceased person".

Schiltigheim received backing from the association Au dela des racines (beyond the roots), co-founded in 2017 by Denise Heilbronn, a nature enthusiast who wanted to see this option flourish.An identification sign displayed on the trunk of a tree in the forest sanctuary in Muttersholtz.An identification sign displayed on the trunk of a tree in the forest sanctuary in Muttersholtz.

"Ageing myself, I don't want to end up in a marble compound with plastic flowers," she explained.

"It doesn't suit me, and I don't want to force my daughters to care for a grave every six months."

She has received interest "from communes right across France", she said.

"There's a huge lack of cemetery space," she said, referring to the ageing of the baby-boom generation and the ravages of Covid.

The French are also increasingly likely to prefer cremation to burial.

Today, major cities such as Nancy are also taking an interest, which plans to open a forest space in December planted on a 6,000sq m (65sq ft) area of one of its cemeteries.A meditation area in the forest sanctuary in Muttersholtz.A meditation area in the forest sanctuary in Muttersholtz.

The ashes of the city's inhabitants will be buried there free of charge, without flowers, wreaths or distinguishing marks.

"We are the first major city to offer this service," said deputy mayor Chantal Finck.

"This responds to society's expectation and it is also an environmental approach, within the dynamic of a return to nature," she added.

For her, the future forest was a "place to meditate but also for walking".

In Muttersholtz, the Grassers made their choice, opting to book a space at the foot of a hazel tree. But as far as when they might need it? "Hopefully as late as possible." – AFP Relaxnews


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