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Healing the heart and the planet

When someone dies in the Hawaiian culture, survivors leave the deceased’s favorite items on their grave so their loved one can take them along on the journey into the afterlife.

Imagine giving grandpa an afterlife as a shade tree over his favorite fishing hole. 

That’s the idea behind a new burial option offered by Eternitrees, a Gresham startup company that mixes cremated remains with tree seeds in a biodegradable urn. The ashes fertilize the seeds and help a tree form.

“People see a magical quality in their loved one,” says Nicholas Hammerling, Eternitrees president and chief executive officer. “We’re hoping that’s what people will see with our product — the finest parts of their loved one can be represented by a tree of their choosing.”

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JIM CLARK - Nicholas Hammerling used his photo of Multnomah Falls to grace a canister for ashes of cremated people.Eternitrees is an uplifting way of looking at a rather maudlin subject. Instead of leaving loved ones alone in a cemetery plot, their cremated remains help produce a living memorial that represents their vibrancy in life and keeps them present in our lives.

Hammerling, 51, is a soft-spoken, gentle soul who understands the process of death and mourning. He left his post as a cemeterian at Gresham’s Forest Lawn Cemetery in August to market his patented burial urns full-time. 

Hammerling began exploring an alternative disposition method after witnessing the emotional turmoil families endure when burying a loved one. He wanted to provide a more peaceful option that also would yield a gift to the planet.

Science experiments

“I originally wanted to make a pen — a Living Pen,” he explains. “There are so many pens being thrown away, and I thought we could place the ashes in the barrel and plant it. But we couldn’t get the pen to biodegrade at a set rate. There was no way to control it because of the plastic.”

The death of his mother prompted a new idea.

“She had always told me she wanted her ashes scattered somewhere,” Hammerling says. “But if I honored that, I couldn’t have visited her to tell her about my day or what was going on in my life.

“She’s now going to be a dogwood tree.”

Using the cremated remains of his own three pets, Hammerling spent three years fine-tuning his concept. He learned the horticultural elements necessary to marry a completely biodegradable burial container with the proper nutrients to nurture a tree sapling.

The result was a lightly fired bisque urn that breaks down when exposed to the elements, combined with seeds, growth medium and organic pH neutralizers that mingle with the ashes to produce a healthy growing environment for a sapling.

“The tiny pieces of bone in cremated remains contain potassium and calcium, which are good in the growth process,” Hammerling says. “But ash has detrimental elements that choke a plant. The proprietary mixture in the Eternitree adjusts the pH naturally in the ash to allow the good parts of the ash to feed the sapling.”

The graceful white urn was designed by Hammerling’s co-worker at the cemetery, Helen DuBarry. Embossed pussy willows wind around the vessel, which is packaged in a metal container with landscape photos shot by Hammerling. The metal container, Hammerling says, can be used as a time capsule for personal mementoes, such as photographs or other meaningful keepsakes.

Eternitrees are meant to be shared, Hammerling says, pointing out that one urn is not large enough to contain the entire cremated remains of a loved one. With family members often separated by distance, each person can purchase his or her own urn and create a living memorial.

“The containers are airport approved,” Hammerling says. “If grandma was from England originally, how wonderful would it be to take her home?”

At one with the squirrels

Those who have buried a family member can be shocked by the expense of a traditional burial. It could cost $4,500 to bury people at the cemetery, he says, and that’s without a grave marker.

“Cremation can cost $2,000,” he says, “and that’s for the plot and urn. All you’re left with is a name on a wall or a marker. Wouldn’t it be more comforting to watch a growing tree that brings you memories of your loved one?”

The Eternitrees option requires direct cremation, which Hammerling says can cost about $1,000. The urn, growth mixture and commemorative container cost less than $80 and can be shipped anywhere.

Hammerling has compiled a descriptive list of the trees guaranteed to grow with his patented mixture. He details each tree’s characteristics and links them with the personality traits that would apply to a loved one. It’s legal to plant the trees anywhere, but permission to use the property should be secured first.

There are 16 varieties of living memorials to choose from, ranging from oaks and corals to ponderosa pines and sugar maples. People can even plant them in their backyard.

Eternitrees thus provides an affordable burial option, and one that enables a departed friend or relative to become a gift to nature.