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Patricia Otto holding a photo of her mother's burial at The Meadows Cemetery in Ferndale, Washington. Photo by Sarah Waller. View the photo slideshow for story.

Patricia Otto holding a photo of her mother's burial at The Meadows Cemetery in Ferndale, Washington. Photo by Sarah Waller. View the photo slideshow for story.


Reincarnation At The Meadows Cemetery

Sarah Waller

Reincarnation is the belief that after you die, your soul will be reborn in a different body or form. It's often thought of in spiritual terms. But, science has its own version. It's called "nutrient cycling."

In the final part of our series "More Than a Tree," KUOW's Sarah Waller visits a cemetery to explore how our bodies can take on new life in the form of a tree.


I'm here at The Meadows Cemetery in Ferndale, Washington. It looks like a meadow full of tall grass and purple clover. There are no headstones, at least not visible ones.

You'd never guess people are buried here, but they are. And that means under the ground, a form of reincarnation is taking place.

Brian Flowers: "There is so much meaning in putting new life on the ground above a loved one, knowing that in a very real and literal way, that person is going to nurture that tree and their molecules are going to become part of it."

Brian Flowers oversees burials at The Meadows. It's not a conventional cemetery. When you bury your loved one here, you are handed a shovel and a tree seedling. No embalming fluids or synthetic coffins are allowed. The idea is to let the body return as naturally as possible to the earth.

Tricia Otto: "Here's my mother's grave site. There was nothing that she wanted more than when she died than to be returned to the soil."

Tricia Otto buried her mother here two summers ago. It was a place they chose together while her mother, Lorrie, was still alive. Her mom was a well–known environmental activist and pioneer in the natural landscape movement, which favored the use wild grasses and native plantings over fertilized, manicured lawns. So, The Meadows felt like home.

Otto: "Actually, there was a large ant hill right on her site, and she was thrilled about that. Maybe her only worry was that it might have to be destroyed when it was her time."

Tricia and her mom liked coming here together. Her mom would sit in a folding chair perched right at the edge of her future grave while Tricia pulled weeds and tended the soil. They talked about life and they planted a tree.

Otto: "Mother chose an oak tree, and so we planted that about a year before she died."

When Tricia's mom passed away, her body was wrapped in a white cloth and lowered into the grave. Her friends and family took up shovels. By hand, they covered her with soil. That's when a transformation started taking place.

Nalini Nadkarni: "There is always a reshuffling. There is always a recycling. There is always sort of a reincarnation of everything."

Nalini Nadkarni is a scientist who knows a lot about something called "nutrient cycling." It's the way nutrients move from one body to the next. For example, it's the way that a tiny piece of Tricia's mom might end up in a tree leaf.

To follow the process, we can look at one particular part of her body.

Nadkarni: "Like say, a piece of hair."

And in that hair, there's a particle of nitrogen, for example. At first, the hair gets chewed up by insects in the soil. It's still hair, just smaller. But then it gets consumed by bacteria and fungi. They digest it, and that nitrogen gets clipped off and reshuffled into a different molecule.

Nadkarni: "And that becomes available for, say, a tree root to absorb and start moving that through the tree to be turned into a leaf or a piece of bark or a piece of wood."

So, the very particle of nitrogen that had been in Tricia's mother's hair might show up in a leaf on the oak tree that is growing on her mother's grave. Or rather, the tree that was growing on her mother's grave.

Otto: "When I came out to look at it a month or so ago, by golly, it had been clipped off at the base by a rabbit (laughs). Mother loved rabbits. So, we're replanting it this fall."

Nadkarni: "That, I think, is the key point. That when someone is buried, the nitrogen and the other molecules can actually move through, not only a single ecosystem, but it can move through time unchanged."

This process has been going on for centuries. For millennia. It's the way that the stuff of our being — the very stuff we are made of — gets circulated all over the world, place to place, organism to organism. And that means that the very same nitrogen that went from Tricia's mom to a tree to a rabbit —

Nadkarni: " — could have been a nitrogen molecule that was originally in the bagel that Napoleon ate on his march to Russia. And it doesn't stop there. It goes back in time because that nitrogen might have been the back hair of a wooly mammoth thousands of years ago. Because of this idea of recycling, that matter is neither created nor destroyed, but rather recycled over and over again and reborn into some other living entity. And that, to me, is kind of a miracle."

Tricia wants to be buried next to her mother. She stands at her gravesite and pushes back the tall grasses and points to a river stone bearing her name. Next to it, Tricia has already planted a tiny oak tree, just like the one by her mother's grave, before the rabbit ate it.

Otto: "This tree is part of the earth, and I'm going to be part of the earth. I am part of the earth right now. My molecules are just going to be recycled into all of this around me. It feels wonderful."

I'm Sarah Waller for KUOW.

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