Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Forest Bathing

It's Not Easy to Become a Tree

The longing to become a tree after death is strong, but is it realistic?

Many of us have favorite trees to which we are inexplicably drawn. Or, we remember that one tree that stood at the center of our childhood experience. In our sometimes stress-filled, chaotic lives, trees stand as graceful portraits of stability, flexibility, and inspire us to embrace life’s challenges with serenity and composure. Current research agrees that a restorative walk in a green space boosts well-being and cognitive function by reducing the stress hormone cortisol and calming the parasympathetic division of the central nervous system.

But if not intellectually, then intuitively we know that our physical and emotional needs are intimately and holistically linked to the delicate health of our biosphere and all of the unique living and breathing organisms therein. Organizations such as the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy are dedicated to building and nurturing a “relational practice” of spending more time in forests and other natural places to not only improve our physical and mental health, but also our relationships with one another, the places we call home, and with our selves.

So, indeed, it is a splendid dream to want your body to become a tree after it dies. Your body would live on in this magnificent stately form of elegance and beauty that symbolically represents life itself. For many people, the images of Capsula Mundi helped to popularize the idea of becoming a tree after death. This conceptual form of full-body disposition was developed in Italy by Anna Citelli and Raoul Bretzel. As of now, Capsula Mundi is an intriguing work of art perhaps, but not a viable, realistic form of burial. The article “How to Become a Tree When You Die—Debunked” published by TalkDeath helps to break down the difficulties associated with becoming a tree, but I will touch upon some of these challenges here.

Capsula Mundi
Source: Capsula Mundi

To begin, I don’t know of any funeral home or natural burial ground at this time that would be willing to wrap a dead body into a fetal position and place it into a biodegradable egg-shaped pod. In addition, the burial process, which would include digging a deep vertical grave to accommodate the pod, sounds logistically unrealistic for all involved in the burial.

Here’s what the science tells us: after the root ball of the tree would be placed over the burial pod, a lot of water would need to be added to the grave in order to help the tree take root. If a dead body is consistently surrounded by too much water, the anaerobic environment may result in the formation of adipocere, a waxy substance around the body which prevents it from properly decomposing into soil.

Simply put, a dead body needs oxygen to decompose. According to TalkDeath, “adding water to an environment lowers the temperature of the soil and disrupts the body’s decomposition process. Additionally, young root growth could be disrupted by the presence of the body or could push remains toward the surface as the tree grows."

Still, the desire to be connected with a tree in some way after death is a comforting aspiration for many people and the reason memorial trees are so popular. A memorial tree typically involves purchasing a tree at a park or natural burial ground and includes a marker near the base of the tree with a loved one’s dedication information inscribed on it. The tree may be one that is already mature and thriving or a new tree is planted for the memorial. While the idea of Capsula Mundi may not be a reality at this time, honoring the memory of a friend or family member with a memorial tree is a thoughtful and beautifully tangible way to express your love while simultaneously supporting our planet.

Source: Mabeline72/Shutterstock

Human composting, or Natural Organic Reduction, is an innovative, scientifically sound technique that has the potential to dramatically change how we humans might "become a tree" upon our death. Now legal in six states -- Washington, Oregon, California, Colorado, Vermont and New York -- Natural Organic Reduction accelerates the decomposition process, cutting it down to a matter of weeks by placing the body in a vessel and surrounding it with wood chips, alfalfa, and straw. At the end of the process, the body has been transformed into a rich soil amendment that can be used to plant a tree.

Biodegradable cremation urns have also been used to plant trees. However, human cremated remains do not support plant life unless they are altered first to neutralize their highly alkaline chemical composition. For more information on this topic, read “The Chemistry of Cremated Remains.”

Meanwhile, the psychological benefits of being in the presence of trees continue to be validated by scientific research. UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine cites recent studies that indicate that “participants walking in a forest experienced less anxiety, hostility, fatigue, confusion, and depressive symptoms, and more vigor, compared to walking in an urban setting.”

Forest Bathing Essential Reads

Greater Good Magazine also cites a study exploring the psychological impact of awe. University students were asked to gaze up at a tall building or eucalyptus trees for one minute. The results conclude that “students who studied the trees experienced more feelings of awe—a sense of wonder and of being in the presence of something larger than oneself.” It is this connection to something larger that brings us closer to understanding, accepting, and even tenderly embracing the fact that death is a normal and natural part of human existence.

Source: dugdax/Shutterstock

In recent years, the Japanese practice shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, has grown in popularity. It’s hard not to fall in love with the idea of being cleansed in a forest by an arborescent community of healers. A study published in 2019 by the National Institute of Health concludes that a group of working age adults who spent a day forest bathing “demonstrated significant positive effects on mental health, especially in those with depressive tendencies.” Physiological benefits include lower blood pressure and an improvement of autonomic and immune functions.

In addition, our historical and cultural bonds with trees run deep. We have all heard of Isaac Newton’s apple tree where the law of universal gravitation was born. And think of the bodhi tree under which the Buddha reached enlightenment after forty-nine days of meditating in its shade. In Washington D.C., Japanese cherry trees stand as symbols of peace between the U.S. and Japan, and then there is the Tree of Life, which carries philosophical, pagan, and religious significance in faith traditions across many cultures worldwide. Whether we consciously think about it on a regular basis or not, trees stand at the center of our psychological, physiological, spiritual, and cultural existence. If you doubt this, imagine a world without them.

It’s not easy to become a tree after death, but when we acknowledge how many trees have been lost to wildfires in recent years, we intrinsically know that we must do everything we can to restore forests and woodlands. Our well-being and the health of the planet depend on it. Trees absorb greenhouse gasses, clean the air, help to cool a warming world, and provide shade and habitat for birds and other wildlife.

Ultimately, trees symbolize hope. In winter, I think of sleeping dogwood trees and the stunning yearly presence of their spring blossoms when they awaken. They can soften a sidewalk, brighten any backyard, and soothe a heartache. In our deepest moments of grief, hope can seem almost impossible, but a tree reminds us that life endures in many different inspiring forms. They remind us of the necessity of cycles. Leaves are born, they flicker in the sun during their heyday, burst with color, and then fall to the earth until a new season, a new cycle arrives. We know this, but in grief, we need these reminders. We need to remember impermanence, change, and witness the dynamic and cyclical way that life unfolds.

An earlier version of this article was previously published in the Heritage Acres Summer 2022 Newsletter.

More from Donelle Dreese Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today