Published Monday, May 28, 2007
Bereaved families find solace by planting memories in a garden

By Christine Laue,World-Herald Staff Writer


The grief is as heavy as the 2,000-pound boulder in their backyard garden.

Yet the rock, etched with the words "Colton's Garden," helps lighten the sorrow of Joe and Tammy Peterson, whose 20-year-old son died a year ago this Memorial Day weekend in a boating accident.

Plants given to the family at Colton's funeral now surround the rock, along with a baseball statue and duck decoys that recall his hobbies. The Petersons plan to add a bench and more plants to the garden, visible from their bedroom and kitchen windows.

"It gives us something to work on," Tammy Peterson said, crying. "It's the only thing we can do for him now."

A "memory garden" is one of several ways people are increasingly turning to the outdoors to mourn the death of a loved one. Using stones personalized at monument companies, or buying pre-engraved stones at local garden stores, the mourners choose verses that express their longing for the person or pet who died.

Sales of such stones have increased in recent years, according to several local garden centers and one Internet company.

A local grief expert saw the trend as a healthy evolution of attitudes toward death and grieving.

"In the last 10 years, we've seen a sharp increase in what is called commemoration," said Joy Johnson, co-founder of the Omaha-based Centering Corp., North America's oldest and largest bereavement resource center. "Commemoration is a physical representation of your love for the person who has died."

"It also reflects that we are a more open society. People are more open to letting their mourning be seen," she said.

And it's convenient.

"You don't have to go to the cemetery," Tammy Peterson said. "It gives us something here for every day."

Kelly Pelster, a steering committee member for Compassionate Friends, a self-help group for parents of children who have died, said some install solar lights or plant tulips at an out-of-state gravesite, then put the same things in their home gardens. When the flowers bloom each season or the lights come on, the parents are reminded of their child.

Of about 40 people attending a Compassionate Friends meeting earlier this month on ways they've memorialized their children, nearly all had done something in their garden, Pelster said.

"It helps people to work, to do something physical instead of just sitting around and being sad," she said.

In addition to the boulder that Joe Peterson engraved, the family has two pre-engraved manufactured stones. One is from a friend. Peterson bought the other, which reads: "If tears could build a stairway,
and memories a lane, I'd walk right up to heaven and bring you home again."

That stone is the best-selling one at Mulhall's, said Shelly Sukstorf, buyer for garden elements.

The garden center at 120th and Maple Streets typically offers four or five different stones of this kind, ranging from $25 to $55. Stones for pets - saying "Our beloved pet" and "In memory of a faithful friend and companion" - range from $20 to $30.

Stones for both pets and people are a consistent seller, she said.

"I've probably gone through about 40 in the last two months," she said.

People also ask for angel statues or that the stones and statues be sent instead of flowers to a funeral home.

Renee Wood, founder of Comfort Company, an online store based in Geneva, Ill., that specializes in memorial gifts, said about 75 percent of her sales are to people sending memorial items in lieu of the traditional flower arrangement.

Garden items are among the top sellers in her online catalog of 320 memorial products, she said. Her No. 1 seller is the garden stone that says, "When someone you love becomes a memory, the memory becomes a treasure."

Trees are her second best-seller. For $42, a tree - from 8 to 14 inches tall and 2 to 3 years old - arrives in a decorative box with a gift card.

"So many people are planting things because they just like to see that hope in tomorrow, and they like to see things growing and the renewal of life," she said.

Michael Berry, creative director at Boulevard Gardens, a landscape design company based in Omaha, said he has not seen clients requesting plaques or monuments but said garden benches or rose gardens planted in memory of someone have been popular memorials for years.

Tim O'Neill, president of J.F. Bloom and Co., a monument works company at 20th Street and Ames Avenue, said he has seen an increase in personalized monuments for home gardens in the last five years. Prices range from $80 to $300, he said.

A Clayton, Wash., company offers a new twist on the memorial bench and garden stone: Chris Reardon, owner of Ashes to Stone, blends cremated remains into cement and pours the mix into bench or stone molds. Prices range from $300 to $500.

Reardon said business has tripled since he started offering the service three years ago. For some, it solves the issue of what to do with the ashes and provides portability.

Although the Petersons' boulder isn't easily portable, it went with them when they moved six weeks ago to a new home outside Blair, Neb. They will continue to build Colton's garden at their new home.

"It just helps us think he's here with us," said Tammy Peterson.