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Oregon's First Modern Natural Burial Ground Could Open This Spring

Willow-Witt Ranch
The Willow-Witt Ranch grows organic vegetables and hosts guided tours with goats. Soon it will also establish Oregon's first natural burial ground.

An organic farm outside Ashland plans to open the Oregon’s first modern natural burial ground this spring.

The Willow-Witt Ranch grows vegetables for local farmer’s markets and hosts guided tours with pack goats. Soon it will also become the home of Oregon’s first modern burial ground where people's bodies can decompose naturally into the earth.

Co-owner Lanita Witt says the burial ground goes hand-in-hand with the ranch’s overall mission of sustainability.

“Everything we as human beings do on the earth has an impact,” Witt says. “From plastics we use when we’re living, to the metals and chemicals we use when we die."

Bodies will be buried in softwood caskets or wrapped in “biodegradable shrouds” — essentially cloth wraps made of natural fibers, like linen. The graves will be two-to-three-feet deep, and they’ll be layered with branches and soil.

“You backfill the layers in the order in which you dig them out so you reestablish the natural layers of the soil,” Witt says. “That allows microorganisms to be in their own habitat.”

The burial ground won’t include landscaping; the forest and native plants can grow over gravesites like they would otherwise. Gravesites will be marked by flat engraved stones, and people will also be able to find them using a GPS map.

Cemetery permits require that the ranch first establish an endowment fund to ensure its long-term maintenance. Witt says she and co-owner Suzanne Willow are in the process of doing that now. They hope to open on the Spring equinox.

Witt owns the ranch along with Suzanne Willow. They manage 440 acres on the northwest end of the Cascade-Siskiyou mountains. They’ve set aside 18 acres for the burial ground.

The ranch is not currently taking reservations, but people can contact that ranch if they’re interested in claiming a spot one day.

April Ehrlich is JPR content partner at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Prior to joining OPB, she was a regional reporter at Jefferson Public Radio where she won a National Edward R. Murrow Award.