Scenes from Fernwood Cemetery. Courtesy images.

Heather Ferguson’s nearly two decades in the food and hospitality industry might not seem like a typical precursor to running a cemetery.

But Fernwood Cemetery in Tam Valley is anything but a typical cemetery.

Ferguson has been leading Fernwood for two years, and says that although it was founded in the early 1890s as a resting place for lumbermen and Portuguese dairy farmers, few in Mill Valley, Marin and beyond know anything more about it than its pioneering role as an environmentally conscious green cemetery over the past few decades.

“Quite a lot of people in the community know about Fernwood as a funeral home and cemetery but just don’t know how beautiful the property is,” Ferguson says. “There is often a stigma or fear that people have about going to a cemetery unless one of their loved one is there. But Fernwood is far more than a cemetery.”

How so, you ask?

It starts with the grounds, a gorgeous, sprawling, 32-acre property that blends very much into the neighboring lands of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. “We’re a certified wildlife habitat and we encourage the community to use this as an open space for hiking, biking and meditation,” says Ferguson, who connected via her brother-in-law, who is also in the funeral business. “Fernwood is very sacred and magical.”

And lest you shiver at the possibility of walking amidst row after row of tombstones in a typical cemetery, Fernwood’s green burial grounds use boulders instead of headstones, making the cemetery seem much more like the open space that surrounds much of Mill Valley and Marin.

Then there’s the physical structure. Fernwood turns the staid, morbid stereotype of a funeral home on its head, with a modern look and an overarching tone of tranquillity. The building was designed by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, a renowned architectural firm whose portfolio features some of the most striking buildings in the world, including the world’s tallest building, the 7-year-old Burj Khalifa in Dubai, as well as One World Trade Center, which opened in 2014, as well as Chicago’s John Hancock Center, which was the second tallest in the world when it was built in 1969, and the Willis Tower, which was built in 1973 and was the tallest in the world for more than 20 years.

The interior spaces, particularly the onsite crematory, were modeled after modern European and Japanese crematories, allowing for ceremonies and small services to take place in a variety of flexible gathering spaces with catered receptions and memorials.

“The public has also used the gathering room for educational conferences, yoga classes, retirement parties, and “Death Café” gatherings,” Ferguson says.

It’s also critical to understand what Fernwood is not. Fernwood is owned by TYO LLC, a partnership between Yogu Kanthiah and Tyler Cassity, whose properties also include the Hollywood Forever cemetery in Los Angeles. The pair bought the two cemeteries from Forever Enterprises in 2009. But the Hollywood property stands in stark contrast to Fernwood, as it is regarded as “one of the world’s most fascinating landmarks,” where “visitors come from all over the world to pay respects to Johnny Ramone, Cecil B. DeMille, Jayne Mansfield, Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks, and hundreds more of Hollywood’s greatest stars.”

“This place is very much about tranquillity and being surrounded by nature,” Ferguson says.

Finally, and most importantly, Fernwood’s services have long been regarded as forward-thinking, and quite distinctive, including green burials where graves are hand-dug and caskets are optional but must be biodegradable if used. “Our services are more ‘spiritual’ than religious, especially the natural burials,” Ferguson says. “Services often consist of friends and family forming a circle around the burial site and sharing memories and then helping to close the grave.”

Those services include the relatively new Gan Yarok (meaning green garden), America’s first Jewish green cemetery, built around the principles established by the founding rabbis of the cemetery, representing all streams of modern Judaism.  

“At Fernwood, in many ways, funeral and burial traditions have come full circle, embracing simplicity and natural beauty,” Ferguson says.

The 411: Fernwood Cemetery is at 301 Tennessee Valley Road. MORE INFO.

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