Penn Forest Questions

Questions about Penn Forest 

Penn Forest Natural Burial Park is the first and only certified natural burial grounds in Pennsylvania and is located on 35-acres of forestland in Penn Hills, 13-miles from downtown Pittsburgh. Please call our manager if you have questions at 412-265-4606.

We’ve compiled a list of frequently asked questions about Penn Forest which you can see below.  If you can’t find what you’re looking for, call us at 412-265-4606.   No question is too big or too small; we are more than happy to help you through this process.

What is a natural burial park cemetery?

Penn Forest Natural Burial Park is both a natural area and a cemetery. Trails meander through forest and meadow and naturalists restore the site by planting native meadow grasses, wildflowers, and trees.  A natural burial park cemetery bears little resemblance to a conventional cemetery. There are no manicured lawns or rows of headstones.

What types of burials are permitted at Penn Forest Natural Burial Park?

Only natural burials (also referred to as “green burials”) are permitted. This is how most people were buried throughout the ages. In a natural burial a person is laid to rest in a biodegradable container such as a wooden casket, shroud, or other biodegradable container. If they are embalmed, only non-toxic embalming fluids are allowed, and no burial vaults are used. It is the true “dust to dust” form of burial. Penn Forest suggests dressing the body in natural fibers such as cotton or wool.

What types of grave markers are permitted?

Grave markers are permitted but optional. Like most other green cemeteries we limit grave markers to being made from local, natural materials—like wood or stone, and they must be placed flat to the ground. For single lots, the exposed surface area of the flush marker must not exceed 250 square inches and no lineal dimension should exceed 25 inches. (Larger markers are available for multiple graves in large family estates.) The maximum depth of the marker will be 12 inches from the surface of the ground. They may be engraved or painted with the name and dates of birth and death of the deceased. The stone used for markers must be similar in color and nature to the rocks indigenous to Southwestern Pennsylvania. Pressure treated wood may not be used. Only non-toxic, biodegradable paints and coatings may be used.

Can families plant a tree or flower on my grave?

In order to contribute to our detailed forest restoration plan, we want to be sure only specific species of native plants are introduced on the site. Plantings in memory of the deceased will be available for purchase. Records of memorial plants—by whom, for whom, and when given—will be maintained by the cemetery and available in the cemetery office.

All plantings must be native to Southwestern Pennsylvania and appropriate to the local microclimate and be done by the cemetery or its employees or contractors. Placement will be according to the approved cemetery’s landscape plan which is designed to enhance the natural environment and habitat and to further the purpose of the long term restoration of the land.


In addition, memorial boulders, benches and other hardscape items can be purchased.

How deep are Penn Forest graves?

PA Cemetery Law [28 Pa. Code 1.21(b).] requires that buried remains “…be deeper than 2 feet from the natural surface of the ground.” As required by Penn Hills, Penn Forest adds 12-inches to the PA law and for a total of at least 3 feet of soil cover.

How can families locate gravesites at Penn Forest?

PA Law requires Penn Forest to keep careful records of precise burial locations. These records are kept on paper and electronically. Interment sites are located precisely by measurements from survey pins. In addition, families can locate graves online with a Google Maps feature on our website.

What types of lots are available for sale at Penn Forest?

Penn Forest offers two kinds of lots for sale—sequential (people don’t chose a specific lot but are buried in the order of their deaths) and select (people choose a specific lot). Because sequential burials allow us to speed up the restoration process by filling a burial area completely and then working on restoration in that area without interference from new burials, they are more efficient and hence are offered at a lower price. However, people who want to be buried in a specific site can choose a select lot at a higher price. In addition, we offer specific cremation only sites or cremated remains can be buried after a body burial in the same lot, which is called a ‘second right of interment’. Also, a family can buy one 4’x8’ lot and have up to four cremains interred in it.

What does my ownership of a lot at Penn Forest entail?

As is true of all cemeteries in Pennsylvania, when you buy a ‘select’ grave site in Penn Forest, you are not actually buying a piece of land but only the right to be buried in that particular site. (At one time cemeteries did actually sell the land, but real estate closing costs and transfer taxes make this prohibitively expensive today. Now, when we sell a site, we issue what’s called an interment rights certificate, not a deed.) If you buy a ‘sequential’ site, you are buying the right to be buried in the next available site at the time of your death.

Is the space mine in perpetuity?

In many parts of the world, graves are reused after a time. In Germany, for example, graves are often rented for 30-years. After that time, if family members don’t renew the lease, the bones are removed and put in a community ossuary, and the grave is rented to some other family.
At Penn Forest, the space is yours in perpetuity because reusing graves would damage tree and plant roots and interfere with forest restoration. Our interment rights are sold for one-time use only, except cremated remains can be buried after a whole body burial at an additional fee. Once the cemetery is full, the land will revert back to forest, the graves will not be disturbed and the endowment care funds will be used to maintain the cemetery in perpetuity.

May we hold funeral or memorial services at Penn Forest?

Families and friends and their religious leaders may conduct graveside services. We currently offer two 10’ x 10’ tents for this purpose. We do not have chapel facilities as yet. In the future, we plan to have an outdoor area set aside for services and a non-denominational chapel.

May families and friends hold home funeral services without a funeral director?

Yes. While many people will appreciate the help of a funeral director, some may wish to handle the arrangements themselves and that’s legal in Pennsylvania. You will need to obtain a death certificate and get burial-transit permit in order for us to do the burial.

May we prepare the site or even dig the grave?

Yes. Whether it’s digging the grave, bringing the casket to the grave, lowering it, or filling in the grave, we welcome your participation. Taking an active part in the burial process can be an integral part of the grieving process.

Can people bury or scatter cremated remains?

Yes. Penn Forest accepts cremation remains. Penn Forest offers 2’ x 2’ cremation only lots, and if someone wishes to simply scatter ashes, there is a designated scattering area. There is a fee for scattering to cover costs of locating and record-keeping in perpetuity. Memorials are also available at scattering sites. Burying or scattering cremated remains has little or no negative environmental consequences.

Doesn’t cremation create a lot of pollution?

Cremation uses fewer resources than conventional cemetery burial and more than green burial, and it certainly has an environmental impact. Cremation burns fossil fuels, and some older cremation facilities can use significantly more energy compared to newer ones. Mercury is also emitted when a person with dental amalgam fillings is cremated.

Who will manage the cemetery after the current managers are no longer around?

It may take more than 100 years to completely fill the cemetery and finish the forest restoration work, so some of the future managers haven’t been born yet. However, we are planning for that time. First, we have established an endowment care fund to provide for long-term maintenance of the site. We set up a trust fund for that purpose. 15% of every lot sale is deposited into that fund and the principle can never be touched. Second, we have obtained a deed restriction on the land that restricts the use of the property to cemetery and forest restoration and residential use only. Hence, with these restrictions in place and the money for carrying out our work available, future managers will be able to continue what we have put in place.

Remember, Penn Forest is a natural burial park, so maintenance is largely limited to reforestation and removal of invasive plants. The burial area paths are maintained to provide easy access to the site and hazardous or fallen trees will be removed. Trails are maintained to provide access throughout the cemetery and for recreational hiking. Our goal is for Penn Forest to look like typical Pennsylvania forest and meadow lands.

What if you haven’t answered my questions here?

There are lots of questions that require detailed answers based on your particular situation.  Questions such as:

  • Can I have a green burial if I donate my body/organs to an organization?
  • If I die out-of-state, how do I arrange for a natural burial at Penn Forest?
  • What are each of the steps between my death at home or elsewhere and my burial at Penn Forest?
  • Can I be sure to get the green burial I want if some of my family members want something else for me?

Just call us at 412-265-4606 so we can address your specific situation.


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