Creating a natural resting place

Date Published: 
March, 2005
Original Author: 
Susan Loving
Managing Editor, ICCFA Magazine, Sterling, VA
Original Publication: 
ICFM Magazine, March 2005

How can a cemetery appeal to people whose first inclination is to cremate and scatter? Forest Lawn, known for pioneering the memorial park concept in the early 20th century, was inspired by national parks to design a 21st century cremation garden that combines the appeal of nature with the comfort of memorialization.

It's hard to believe The Woodlands is in Los Angeles—Hollywood Hills, no less. There are no freeways in sight, only greenery and rocks, and in the distance a church spire and a backdrop of mountains and trees.

It's a place where visitors can listen to birds singing and the soft rustling of leaves while remembering their departed loved ones or simply lost in thought and the beauty of the moment.

It's a cremation garden created to appeal to nature lovers and to those inclined toward cremation for environmental reasons.

It's a place for permanent memorialization designed to appeal to those who might otherwise scatter a loved one's cremated remains to the winds somewhere in the great outdoors, only to regret later having done so.

''Memorialization is really important, and many people will regret not doing it,” said John M. Warren, senior vice president marketing for Forest Lawn Memorial Parks & Mortuaries as he talked about The Woodlands.

Forest Lawn's market research told the company that today more people like the idea of being "one with the earth" and that this feeling is feeding the inclination to scatter in natural parks or similar areas.

Many traditional cemeteries and memorial parks have cremation gardens, but they are designed along a traditional, English garden plan. Forest Lawn officials wanted a garden that would feel as if it had been designed by nature.

They chose about an acre in their Hollywood Hills location that adjoins a section of the park protected by a preservation easement, Sennet Creek Canyon. The first phase of the project covers about one-third of an acre.

Existing trees set the design
Dallas, Texas, architecture firm J. Stuart Todd Inc. gave Forest Lawn some ideas and sketches, "and helped us develop some concepts," Warren said. The bulk of the design was then done in-house.

"We left the trees as they were and developed interment property around the trees and put in a meandering path," Warren said. The path is of decomposed granite, so it is not as hard as concrete but not as loose as sand or gravel. Where steps were necessary, flagstone was used.

"Everything flows with what was growing there already," Warren said of the design. " A lot of it was hard work, because you can't get backhoes in there."

By starting in an area with mature trees, Forest Lawn was able to end up with a garden canopy of 30 to 40 foot pines, accented with some cedars.

Made-to-order rocks
Forest Lawn ordered products from Rock & Water Creations, Fillmore, California, with some adjustments to the standard product lines.

The company's faux rocks and boulders that mark the location of the cremated remains come with a flat indentation where a bronze plaque can be attached. "We didn't want our rocks to have flat spots, so we asked Rock & Water to cast extra thickness in some spots, and then when someone orders a plaque, we ground it down at that time, so you don't see flat spots."

Forest Lawn also wanted additional security to give families the assurance that the cremated remains containers would remain in place, so they designed a system whereby the rocks are bolted to in-ground concrete vaults.

The interment spots are on a grid so they can be easily mapped. The question was, Warren said, "How do you have a grid and make it look random?"

The answer: "You skip a lot of the spaces and orient the rocks different ways, and use about every style rock they make."

Each rock has a capacity of up to four urns. Phase 1 includes 526 rocks. Two earth-tone columbaria with granite niches provide 212 above-ground interment spaces, as do granite benches that can hold the cremated remains of up to eight persons.

Because of the multi-urn capacity of the rocks and niches, Phase 1 has a total capacity of 3,000 interments. Additional phases will add an estimated 700- 800 rocks and niches to The Woodlands.

People who prefer a more traditional columbarium niche but like the location can choose one of two small columbariums, only two or three niches high—the height of a rock wall.

The soft ground cover, plants and trees absorb sound. "It's very quiet; you can really hear nature," Warren said.

Visitors can enjoy the solitude, the sights and sounds of nature, while remembering their loved ones. The benches provide seating, though some people choose to sit on a rock or boulder, as they might anywhere else outdoors.

Acceptance and expansion
Construction on The Woodlands started in April 2004. Interments were accepted beginning in December. "So far, we've had a great reception," Warren said. "We had some people waiting for us to finish the garden." Sales of rock memorials are on target and interest is growing as more families learn about The Woodlands.

"We're getting people who normally would take the urn home. We don't know if they would have chosen to scatter or to keep the cremated remains at home."

Now, they're choosing the option cemeterians believe in—permanent memorialization in a spot that will be available for generations to come.

In addition to developing additional phases at The Woodlands, Forest Lawn plans to add similar areas at other locations. The next one is planned for Covina Hills.