The Tree Memorial is a small and still evolving community on the Michels’ farm in west central Minnesota, 10 miles west of Sauk Centre. It was created out of the Michels family’s immediate and extreme need to deal with loss. That need gathered people together in hopes of healing. It drew on inherent strengths within each member of the family, the immediate community and the broader public. On November 7, 1987 my brother, Gerry, was killed in a hunting accident. Our family, while still in shock, began to talk about how to make sense
out of such a senseless act. We were also drawn back to a time 34 years earlier when another brother, Gary, drowned on the family farm. We knew what unresolved grief could do. We were experiencing for the second time the pain, anger and questions about the meaning of loss. We knew that people in our community and in the broader world were grieving and could not acknowledge it publicly. We began to feel that broader public participation could lend meaning to our own personal experience. As is custom, people donated money for
memorials at the funeral. Gerry’s memorial money was set aside to develop a living memorial on the farm. We felt that by connecting to the truths in other peoples’ lives it would bring more meaning to the randomness of Gerry’s death. We set aside an acre of land on the family farm, where we would invite family, friends, neighbors, and the broader community to participate in planting trees for their own loved ones. Our intention was to grieve together, to support each other, but also to celebrate life! As more people heard about our intentions, their support confirmed that others, too, needed an active and communal way to grieve. People experienced the meaning and saw worth in it. People helped prepare the land; they donated equipment and their precious time to help with the logistics of bringing it all together. A neighbor donated a pig for a pig roast;
another neighbor brought a huge water tank to water the trees as they were being planted. A family friend built picnic tables; and, wooden stakes were cut and numbered to mark each tree. We invited friends, neighbors and anyone in the larger community to dedicate the land by participating with readings in the
communal programs that we hoped would add meaning to the planting and eating together. My sister, Peg, and I picked several songs that seemed appropriate. “Amazing Grace” and “Inch by Inch,” a song about faith and hope in planting, were two of the songs to commemorate the day. On May 30, 1988 about 150 people came to the farm. Everybody brought food to share at the celebration. The day started with people choosing a site for their tree and registering that site so it could be recorded. By saying the name of whom the tree was planted for, there was a profound and individual sense of the purpose for being there. We already knew from our own experience with the death of our first brother, Gary, that the names of people lost are seldom repeated as time passes. By acknowledging the name, people were able to heal again on another level. They planted their trees, cried and ate together and shared stories. That first program dedicated the land and people spoke about their reasons for gathering that day. Over 100 trees were planted that day in 1988.
By Pam Michels Borgmann