A secluded stretch of forest on a lake near Scandia will become a place to scatter cremated remains and reflect, as interest in more natural burials grows.

The 112-acre site on little Fish Lake is being billed as Minnesota's first conservation memorial forest, and one of only a small handful in the country.

The San Francisco-based startup behind the project expects to open the grounds next year, but it's already taking orders for trees, giving buyers the rights to scatter cremated ashes around them on the forest floor. The base price for rights to an existing tree for one person, along with a personalized memorial marker, is $3,900.

The company, Better Place Forests, bought the woodlands from an area resident. Next week foresters will be inventorying the trees and also noting invasive plants and overgrowth that needs to be ripped out, the company said.

Better Place Forests founder and CEO Sandy Gibson said his own painful experience losing both his parents as a boy in Canada helped drive him to find an alternative to conventional casket burials. He recalled visiting his mother's grave in a bleak cemetery.

"I wanted to create something that was more beautiful," Gibson said. "… and know that place is doing something good for the world."

The company operates three conservation memorial forests in California and Arizona and plans to announce more by the end of the year, Gibson said. The grounds include small parking lots and staffed visitor centers for families to gather and hold ceremonies.

Gibson said his team has spread out nationally, searching for healthy forests within a 3- to 4-hour drive from a major city. The Scandia property is "the most diverse forest of any that we have," he said. The woods includes about 2,500 feet along the south end of Fish Lake, a private lake with no public access.

"The lake is spectacular," he said. "It's just a very incredibly healthy, beautiful forest."

Natural allure

It's a bold move for Scandia.

The town of fewer than 4,000 people — sitting between Stillwater and Taylors Falls along the St. Croix River — has been trying to boost tourism. It boasts vineyards, bike trails and a strong Swedish heritage.

The wooded property lies within the city limits and about 3 miles west of the town center. It's just north of N. Lakamaga Trail.

Scandia's City Council voted unanimously this summer to grant the conditional use permit for the unusual project.

"I think this is the first time we had a permit request that we haven't had some opposition," said Scandia Mayor Christine Maefsky. "We think this is a wonderful thing to be able to offer in Scandia."

It's also not a bad thing for the Maefskys. The family runs the Poplar Hill Dairy Goat Farm on land that abuts the forest. Maefsky said that her daughter lives across Fish Lake from the new project.

The property is zoned "general rural" meaning that the woods could have been developed for housing but not for commercial structures.

City officials are working with the company and state on a conservation easement to ensure the forest is maintained and never developed.

"We all were hoping that it would stay in its natural state," Maefsky said. "My husband says we're going to have 5,000 neighbors but they're going to be really quiet."

Green burial options

The conservation memorial forest is one of a host of more natural end-of-life options gaining popularity as baby boomers and younger people search for more meaningful, environmentally friendly resting places.

Traditional burials, with steel caskets and concrete-lined vaults in cemeteries, can be expensive and polluting. Traditional embalming fluid, for example, is a cocktail of chemicals, including formaldehyde, that will leak out into the ground.

Conventional fire-based cremations, too, aren't without impact. They are energy intensive and emit air pollutants such as carbon dioxide. There are greener methods. Bradshaw Funeral Home and Cremation Services, which operates around the Twin Cities, can use water and potassium hydroxide to quickly reduce a corpse to bone ash, a process it says the Mayo Clinic has used for years to dispose of bodies donated for science.

There is also the time-honored tradition of natural burials — simply placing the shrouded body in the ground. While many Muslim and Jewish communities follow this practice and operate their own cemeteries, it's much less common elsewhere.

Resurrection Cemetery, a Catholic cemetery in Mendota Heights, is one of a handful of hybrid cemeteries around the Twin Cities offering both traditional and natural burials. Prairie Oaks Memorial Eco Gardens operates exclusively natural burials at its grounds in Inver Grove Heights, Bemidji and Wisconsin, near St. Croix Falls. These are among the only dedicated natural burial grounds in Minnesota that are not connected to a faith community, according to Anne Archbold, a funeral celebrant who co-owns Minneapolis-based Final Blessings.

An even more unusual option: You can be put to rest in a $1,500 Infinity Burial Suit developed by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher who started a company called Coeio. Actor Luke Perry was famously buried in one of the suits, a cotton garment embedded with mushrooms that emit enzymes to break down the body into nutrients.

An Italian startup called Capsula Mundi provides a biodegradable egg-shaped pod for burials. Bodies are placed in the pod in a fetal position, and buried with a young tree attached at the top. The decomposing body feeds the tree.

Scattering ashes is the only option at Scandia.

It's a welcome new option, said Archbold, the funeral celebrant. But Archbold said she prefers local ownership, and natural burials over cremation because of the pollution crematoriums generate.

Archbold is part of the Land Conservation Natural Burial Project, a local group trying to start the state's first conservation burial grounds for bodies, not ashes. They, too, plan to have a conservation easement to protect the land.

Archbold said she hopes the Scandia grounds will seed new connections with the natural world.

"The more people love the land and connect with the forest and connect with the earth then hopefully we protect what we love," she said. "They might go visit, and that would increase their sense of connection and willingness to change their lifestyles."