Memorial Trees: Donor Beware

In the Umpqua National Forest

“It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men’s hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air that emanation from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.”

 Robert Louis Stevenson

Inspirational thoughts about trees are ubiquitous. It’s natural that one would think of planting a tree in memory of a treasured family member or friend. 

When looking for an obituary of a former work colleague who recently passed away, I quickly found myself on Legacy.com,  a U.S.-based website which hosts obituaries from newspapers for more than 70 percent of all U.S. deaths and is said to attract more than 30 million unique visitors per month.

But Legacy.com isn’t simply an obituary posting service. It also tries to exploit the inclination of people to want to memorialize the departed by driving the grieving to pay to have trees in their name. “Plant a tree in memory of a loved one,” says its website. “Let their legacy live on.” The cost? $90 for 10 trees, $165 for 50, $265 for 100.

“By planting memorial trees, you not only honor the life and legacy of your loved one — you also help to preserve our beautiful national forests for generations to come,” says Legacy.com’s website.

Responding to an inquiry, a Legacy.com Support & Solutions Specialist said all the trees planted would be saplings, young trees with a slender trunk.

If the purchaser doesn’t choose a planting location from among several offered up when ordering, the trees will be planted by arborists in a forest in need. “The current project is the Mississippi Alluvial Valley,” the Specialist said. “The other current location choices are: Oachita National Forest (in both Arkansas and Oklahoma), Econfina Creek (in Florida) and Manchester State Forest (in South Carolina). Since we started the program, we have not offered any locations in Oregon.”

Sounds good. But there’s something left unsaid. Legacy.com is far from a sympathetic, supportive helping hand in difficult times. It is, instead, a giant private profit-hungry company based in Evanston, Illinois. Founded in 1998, it was acquired by Pamplona Capital Management , a a private equity firm, in  2017.

If Legacy.com was a non-profit or a public company, it would have to disclose its finances. As a private company it has no obligation to do so. 

Thankfully, there are a lot of great alternatives to Legacy.com’s profit-seeking memorials.Impactful Ninja, for example, has created a list of the best non-profits for planting trees in 2022. 

One Tree Planted, at the top of their list, promises one tree will be planted for every dollar donated. The non-profit plants trees all over the world. Their work helps restore land affected by human and natural disasters, including supporting the communities and ecosystems in these areas. One Tree Planted recently focused on raising funds to create breeding habitat for monarch butterflies in Mexico.

The organization holds a Platinum Seal of Transparency by GuideStar. It is the highest rank held by organizations that share all their results and progress. And a 100% rating for impact and results from Charity Navigator. 

Don’t assume, by the way, that well-known tree planting non-profits are all highly rated. 

For example, one highly visible non-profit, the Arbor Day Foundation, is not on Impactful Ninja’s list. The Foundation promotes “Trees in Memory” where a donor can have trees planted   by contracted professional tree planters in a variety of national forests, including Oregon’s Umpqua National Forest, for $2 a tree.

However you choose to do it,  planting a tree in memory of a special person is a worthy tribute. As Nelson Henderson, a Canadian farmer, observed:

“The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”

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