My Forest Is a Graveyard

You won’t find bones or bodies. Instead you’ll find natural stone markers, buried ashes, and feathers. Dried flowers, prayers written on small pieces of paper, and Tibetan prayer flags.

Vic died on June 3, 2008 and his ashes were the first to go in the forest. He had few opinions about what we should do after his death. Did he want special sacred readings at a memorial or special rituals?

“You’ll figure that out,” he said, “but I’d like my ashes buried under the big Red Oak on the forest knoll so what’s left of this body can fertilize that tree.” After his death, my sons built a stone cairn on the knoll and we buried Vic’s ashes there. I walk to this quiet place when life feels overwhelming. Bird songs and spring flowers are the best medicine for despair.

Daisy and Vic

After Vic’s death, I rescued a dog who became dangerously vicious. Despite three months of compassionate daily training guided by animal behaviorists, my vet convinced me the dog would kill someone, possibly me or my older dog Daisy. With a broken heart, I spread Lucy’s ashes along the paths leading to Vic’s cairn, hoping her aggression would make her a powerful underworld guardian.

Three years after Vic’s death, I buried our gentle Yellow Lab Daisy’s ashes near Vic’s cairn in the forest. Her marker had the outline of a flower etched in the stone.

Vic’s Red Oak

In 2018, my sons and I buried Vic’s mother’s ashes on the other side of the knoll, just downhill from Vic’s cairn. She owned a burial plot in Connecticut with her deceased second husband, but insisted on being close to her son.

“There won’t be a formal marker,” I said. She didn’t care. She wanted to be near her only child, dead or alive. We granted her wish, but imagined Vic’s preference. Not too close.

Willow & Elaine, 2010

We’ll soon bury Willow’s ashes in the forest with the rest of the family. She died on April 8, 2023, 14 years old, unable to eat, and in severe pain. My heart aches for the companion and friend who walked beside me through my hardest years of grief, but it was her time.  Timothy Dunlap created a memorial stone for Willow with these wise words: “You will never forget me, for I am already included in the pattern of your life.”

In June, flower spikes cover my fields—thousands of Purple Lupines. The beauty of the lupines taught me about gratitude on the day Vic died. I’ll pick lupines, choose a poem, and say a prayer for everyone buried in the forest. We’ll dig a grave near Vic’s Red Oak and put Willow’s ashes in the earth with her marker decorated with lupines.

I considered a full body burial for myself, but decided on cremation so my ashes can be in our forest. I prefer joining my human and canine tribe on the Red Oak knoll.

My sons will know just what to do.


Can you create a life history by remembering pets you’ve loved? Mine begins with Amigo when I was four years old. Have you created a special ritual for a pet? For a post about creating a grief ritual for Leo who died in 1995, see How My Dog Taught Me the Art of Ritual. For a post about life with Willow and Disco, see Soul Animals.

  1. ‘My Forest Is a Graveyard’ is beautifully penned with its heartfelt, poignant title. I doff my poet’s cap to you dear Elaine, as from start to finish this post reads like exquisite prose. And so Willow’s ashes will join the rest of the family, and in years to come, I note a place has been reserved for your ashes too, at the sacred Red Oak knoll.

    May June 3rd be a beautiful day. May your purple lupines stand tall and fragrant in wild abandon. May your love, poem and prayers for Vic, your beloved Green Man, be heard by all who live, sleep and dream in the wild forest. May the King and Queen of the Monarchs and all their precious children return to their Mama. All the love in my heart, Deborah.

    • Dear Deborah. I miss you–and I’m glad you’re taking care of yourself. My forest has plenty of room for Willow, me, and anyone who wants to continue the tradition. June 3 is a full moon day this year so if it’s clear, I may take a full moon walk to the forest. I’m getting the gardens planted with butterfly flowers, a little each day. Disco and I also visit the forest and the Green Man every day. He’s always there and I feel replenished. So much suffering in this world, but the oak trees are the healthiest they’ve been in a few years with no caterpillars devouring the leaves. (The Green Man smiles.) It’s been a cool dry spring and milkweed is appearing in the fields here and there. Not much, but it will come. First milkweed and then Monarchs. I’m working on my book. There’s still more to do, but I feel on the right creative track.
      With love to you and Lin and gratitude.

  2. Dear Elaine, I wished I had such a graveyard nearby to have all my family by me. Then I could feel their presence more. I want to be cremated and my ashes scattered around in the woods. Life is full of losses and suffering, and the grieves accompany us to the end! Blessings.

    • Aladin, I know how fortunate I am to live on land that has become family land in the last fifty years. It’s a comfort to walk to Vic’s cairn and feel at home in the forest. Before we bought the property and cleaned up dumps, rusted old cars, and piles of tires in the forest, it belonged to many others who tried to farm the bony soil. In 1779 this was indigenous land, home to the Seneca Indians of the Iroquois Nations, and the US Continental Army destroyed the villages and killed anyone they could find. It’s another horror in the history of this country. The wounds never heal. May we live to see a world of peace.

  3. You have strong male figures in your family, Elaine: husband Vic of course, and also your two sons who built the forest cairn. As you know, stones of remembrance are used in Jewish bereavement practice. I like the idea of small stones being placed by those who visit Jewish graves in an act of remembrance or respect for the deceased.

    In a memorial service I attended recently, ashes of my friend were spread into the Atlantic. While the same was done years earlier for her husband who also loved the ocean, I find stones more durable and provide a natural site for the bereaved to visit and remember.

    And those purple lupines, ah, so lovely this time of year.

    May you be comforted this day and find just the right amount of energy and focus you need to progress on your book this week! ((( )))

    • Thank you, Marian. Vic requested the site in the forest without mentioning a marker. My sons began gathering granite boulders from the stream the day after Vic’s death. Hard physical work and stone artistry was their way of handling grief and honoring their beloved father. I didn’t know it would be such an important spot for me to pray, offer flowers, and find peace, but it’s not surprising considering we loved and honored this forest knoll long before Vic’s death. It’s a blessing to have a forest filled with memories.

      The Lupines are late this year because of cool weather, but a few are flowering. It’s alarmingly dry which has become more common in recent years and the winter was dry with very little snow. Climate change does different things in different places, but I saw a few milkweed plants in the fields yesterday. That made me hope the Monarchs will be OK despite a big drop in population last winter. I usually see them in late May on a warm year or in early June. I’m working on my book a little most days and reading your book at the same slow pace and enjoying stories, drawings, and a sense of partnership between you and your husband Cliff. With gratitude.

  4. Beautiful and sensitive as always.
    It makes me wonder if you two ever talked about having a stone carved with his name and maybe a statement he loved on the cairn. In years to come no one will know who is there, or that it is a site of a loved one. Maybe it doesn’t matter as we become one with all that is.
    And yet still, when I went to our family site, there are seven people there, each with a stone with a name and dates. I liked seeing the dates when they lived and died. It placed them within this wild time ride we are on and made me feel connected.
    I soon am going to spread ashes of my friend Jim. He hiked the mountains up behind his house in Taos and would carve his name in a tree he liked. Every year, with the date and his name. Like it or not, it is there and it is there I am putting his ashes. Even though I don’t like the idea of carving your name in trees in the wild, I think I will carve his name one last time. And add something he said a lot. “Cram as much as you can into life.” Which he did.
    Thank you for your blogs. I am always appreciative.

    • Thank you, Lauren. Vic wasn’t much interested in a stone marker when we discussed it, but maybe it just wasn’t up to him. I see your point and wonder. I imagine a quote on the cairn with his dates, but I’m not sure that will happen. I’ll discuss it with the clan. At this point, there are no descendents (grandchildren) who didn’t know Vic. And of course, like everything, those date carvings in the trees won’t last forever, but for now they mark that Jim was there in Taos on this earth. Sending love to you in the wild west.

  5. So tender. So beautiful
    Thank you dear friend!!

  6. It is the evening of June 3 here on the west coast, and so you have already had your beautiful ritual on the Red Oak knoll with the purple lupines in bloom. Ah, love and loss. What a journey this being human, and what a difference it makes to share life’s passages and to keep walking each other home.
    Sending love and blessings, anne

    • Thanks for remembering, Anne. I had a simple ritual with a bouquet of lupines and poetry by Tagore. Yes, let’s keep walking each other home. Even if we live many thousands of miles away from each other, we stay connected through sharing sacred ideas. Love and blessings to you, too.

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