All the way back in July 2021, I accepted a job as a Memorial Ceremony Specialist at Better Place Forests St. Croix Valley. I say, “all the way back” because while it’s been less than a year it feels like a lifetime ago. I don’t mean that in a negative way. Quite the contrary. I mean it in the most affectionate way. Working at Better Place Forests changes you. It feels like a lifetime ago because, for me, it was. I’m a different person in this short time — for better and for good.

Hosting memorial ceremonies in the St. Croix Valley forest is the most rewarding thing I have ever done. I work with families to plan meaningful ceremonies for their loved ones. I consider it an honor to be a part of their story, and I take great pride in my work. I’m not so naive to think that these ceremonies will erase the pain of losing a spouse, parent, or child. Nor do I expect them to. But the forest does grant some relief — because it’s beautiful, because it gives them peace, and because my coworkers and I show them compassion and empathy at all times.

I admittedly have a hard time saying “no” to anyone. The first time a customer asked me if they could visit the St. Croix Valley forest around the holidays to place a wreath on their late husband’s tree, it was especially challenging to say no. The second time a customer asked me, it was impossible.

The ceremony had just ended when she politely asked, “Could I come around Christmas to place a wreath at the tree?” I opened my mouth to tell her that the forest would be closed this first winter. I meant to give her the list of practical reasons why we’d be closed, but nothing came out. Instead, I found myself saying, “Let me see what I can do.” And the next day, true to my word, I saw if there was something I could do.

The next day I asked my manager if this would be possible and before I could even finish the question I was met with an enthusiastic “Do it!” And so the winter wreath event was born.

When I began planning, I quickly learned that you can’t just walk into a florist and say, “Twenty-two wreaths, please.” I know this because I went into a florist, and I said, “Hi! Twenty-two wreaths, please!” The laughter I received was a pretty clear sign that I had better try a different approach. I found more success with a local Christmas tree farm who gladly ordered the twenty-two wreaths for me.

null

I spent a lot of time in the forest the week leading up to the event. I made sure all of the memorial markers were visible and polished, that the trails were accessible, and spent time breaking up ice so no one would slip and fall. The one thing I didn’t do was look at the weather forecast. On the morning of the event, all of my hard work was buried under a foot of snow. A classic blunder. It never rains unless you wash your car. And It never snows unless you plan a big outdoor event.

Thankfully the weather cleared up and our families still came to the forest that weekend. The first family that showed up included four children and just as many sleds. They blazed through the foot of snow that covered the trails. Laughing in the face of gravity on the forest's many hills, their parents and grandparents tugging them along. It had been several months since the forest heard children's laughter — since our summer visits wrapped up in October — but there was no shortage of laughter that winter morning.

Several others came and walked through the forest that day. And even more the following day, including both of the women who had given me the idea for the event. Some came out alone. Some came with their family, friends, pets, or all of the above. They came out to enjoy the forest, to place a wreath on a tree, and to visit their loved ones at their final resting place.

Whatever the reasons they had for coming, it was an honor to help them in any way that we could. Whether that was escorting them through the snowy forest to their tree, or giving them a map so they could make the journey alone. Whether that was offering cider and cocoa to keep them warm on their quest, or using the promise of cookies and a roaring campfire to keep them motivated on the hike back. This weekend meant a lot to the families who have had a Memorial Ceremony in St. Croix Valley, and that means everything to me.

Afterward, I was inspired to spend the following weekend volunteering at Fort Snelling National Cemetery, placing wreaths on the graves of fallen veterans, one of which belongs to my father. That weekend in the forest was one of the most rewarding things I have ever done.

I want to thank everyone who has chosen Better Place Forests St. Croix Valley as their loved ones’ final resting place. I hope this wreath event and your time in the forest brought you some serenity, even if just for a moment.