Keith ‘Biome’ Erickson, a self-proclaimed Nazi, was recently buried there despite protests
By Matt Witt
For years, I’ve considered being buried at Willow-Witt Ranch’s “green” burial ground, but after a disappointing recent development, that’s no longer a choice I would make.
Keith “Biome” Erickson, a prominent self-described Nazi who died Jan. 31 after a single-car crash, was buried on Feb. 7 at Willow-Witt’s Forest Conservation Burial Ground despite protests from community members.
I wouldn’t now choose to join Erickson there and thereby help to normalize the kind of organizing he did that creates a climate of violence and fear for Jewish, Black, Latinx, LGBTQ+, and other local residents.
I first saw Erickson in action at a listening session on January 8, 2019, conducted in Medford by Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum about strengthening Oregon’s legislation on hate crimes, which were on the rise following the 2016 election of Donald Trump. Trump was doing his best to normalize and thus embolden such activity — such as by calling Nazis and their allies in Charlottesville “very fine people” after one of them killed a person and injured 35 others.
Before the listening session began, I spoke with local residents at the back of the room who were trying to get up the courage to speak about threats and harassment they had experienced as Black, Latinx, or LGBTQ+ people in this valley. Also represented were Rogue Valley nonprofits whose offices had been defaced with white supremacist material in the middle of the night and who had been threatened by an armed man outside their offices because they supposedly were engaged in “white genocide.”
Their nervousness escalated when they realized that Erickson was there, observing each speaker. Then Erickson himself strode to the microphone. He testified that as a proud member of the National Socialist (Nazi) party and a Holocaust denier, he didn’t “feel safe” in Oregon, and Rosenblum really should be doing more to protect him!
A month earlier, the Havurah Shir Hadash congregation needed an armed guard to keep Erickson and Gregg Marchese, who is, according to published reports, another Holocaust denier, from disrupting a talk by Rabbi David Zaslow about the rise of anti-Semitism. Zaslow’s talk came shortly after a gunman entered a temple in Pittsburgh and killed 11 Jews.
After attempting to enter Havurah Shir Hadash, Erickson posted on Facebook that Jews “dominate” the “American political landscape,” and, as a result, “Is there any wonder why America, as exemplified by its youth, is slipping into a cesspool of obesity, addiction, idiocy, moral impoverishment and general malaise?”
Marchese, who tried to enter Havurah Shir Hadash with Erickson, posted on Facebook that the Ku Klux Klan was created to protect Southerners from “powerful Jews who had Lincoln killed (and) roaming gangs of recently freed slaves inflicting murder, rape and vandalism on whites.”
Knowing who Erickson was, I was shocked last month to read that in a few days he was going to be buried at Willow-Witt Ranch.
The ranch, founded by Suzanne Willow and the late Dr. Lanita Witt, is a 445-acre restored forest and wetlands and small working farm and ranch about 14 miles northeast of Ashland that offers “a unique and exciting agritourism experience” and partners with local schools and other organizations to provide educational opportunities.
Its Forest Conservation Burial Ground website says that “natural or green burial is a return to simple, non-toxic burials designed to support the reunion of human bodies with nature.” It adds that “people of all faiths, identities, and walks of life come together in shared honoring of the experiences we hold together, and shared reverence for the space that holds us.”
When it became public that Erickson was going to be buried there, some local residents called or emailed the ranch to protest.
Kay Brooks, who served on the Medford City Council when the Ku Klux Klan began recruiting more actively there in 2018, said she contacted Willow-Witt Ranch out of concern for Jewish, BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and other community members and their families who might no longer feel comfortable at the ranch or the burial ground, including families of people already buried there.
“I mentioned that all of us in our Rogue Valley community respect Dr. Witt and Suzanne’s work so much, and we’d be remiss to not alert Suzanne to the larger context of the situation,” Brooks said. “I also mentioned that multiple friends (Jewish and not) have already said that if he’s buried there, they’ll likely terminate their contract for their own burial arrangements or not pursue being buried there. The idea of their incredibly valuable work with the forest conservation burial project being threatened or sullied by his presence is heartbreaking.”
In that same spirit, I myself wrote to the ranch to express my concern. I got no reply.
But in response to community protests, the Burial Ground issued a short public statement that said “we do not have the right to deny the interment of any remains.”
That statement drew at least 17 responses on the Burial Ground’s Facebook page, but those comments have been “hidden” by the ranch so they can’t be read by anyone other than the page’s administrators.
The ranch’s statement prompted me to look into state law that governs licensed cemeteries like the Burial Ground. I found that the law (ORS 97.710) gives licensed cemeteries the right to establish rules for “the protection and safeguarding of the premises and the principles, plans and ideals on which the cemetery was organized.”
I then wrote to Chad Dresselhaus, executive director of the Oregon Mortuary & Cemetery Board, the state agency that regulates cemeteries. I asked whether the Burial Ground could legally have refused to accept Erickson.
Dresselhaus responded in writing that “as long as a cemetery has requirements/prohibitions in their printed rules, they have somewhat broad latitude in what is allowed/not allowed.”
According to the Willow-Witt Burial Ground’s published rules, “The Forest reserves the right to refuse the use of the facilities at any time to any person or persons whom the management in its sole discretion deems a threat to the best interest of The Forest.”
“I am not aware of any lawsuits being filed in response to a cemetery’s refusal to inter someone based upon differing beliefs/opinions,” Dresselhaus wrote.
In any case, Erickson is now buried there, and about 20 people held a gathering at Willow-Witt to celebrate his life.
I long considered a green burial at Willow-Witt because it would be consistent with my values. But now I would feel that I was helping to normalize dangerous activity like Erickson’s, and I would wonder who else would be buried alongside me and celebrated there in the future.
Matt Witt is a writer and photographer in Talent. He is not related to the late Dr. Lanita Witt.