Redefining a better and greener way of death

By: Elizabeth Fournier, funeral director

Spending my last several years working as a small-town funeral director has given me the unique pleasure and privilege to serve families during their greatest time of need. I am always honored to be chosen to facilitate the journey of their loved one’s passing. It is my role as a small-town minister that allows me to convey to the family that the death of our bodies is a sacred and spiritual passage.

Blessed Mother

As I see it, death is a spiritual transition, especially at the time of death of the physical body. The practical realization of passing away is guided by an advanced spiritual revelation. In the green burial movement, this advanced spiritual revelation is focused on the earth’s well being, and the movement attempts to realize this.

The green burial movement is crucial to restore this freedom and choice, both during the actual death and in the arrangements made after death, and to enable a more ”natural” death, surrounded by one’s loved ones in one’s own surroundings. Important to note, the concept of natural death reaches to include active family involvement and home funerals, as well.

Eschewing chemical embalming and bulletproof metal caskets, elaborate and costly funerals, more and more are embracing a range of natural burial options, new and old, that are redefining a better – and greener – way of death.

It’s been proven that participation by the mourners eases the grieving process. Being involved really does help the constant flow of energy, and the effect is quite evident. The idea is to bring everyone into the actual process. From a personal experience I had recently, it truly helped the distraught family to participate in making all the decisions, and I think in a practical way it helped to be occupied.

The matriarch of the family had finally passed after many months on hospice care. The days following were amazingly powerful and quite personal for all involved. Her family clothed and laid her out on a bed in her living room. All her friends brought food and flowers. They were able to look at her face and touch her hands and say goodbye. After the celebration of her life, she was brought to a burial space in a wooded area and her children slowly lowered her shrouded body. The day was glorious.

Elizabeth Fournier is affectionately known as The Green Reaper in her tiny community of Boring, Oregon. She is the owner and operator of Cornerstone Funeral Services and works as a green mortician, educator and advocate who is always ready to lend a hand, or a shovel. She is the voice of the autopsy exhibit in the forensic wing at the United States National Museum of Medicine, teaches ballroom dancing at Reed College, and recently published her memoir, All Men Are Cremated Equal: My 77 Blind Dates. She writes a monthly column for The Black Lamb and Naturally Savvy, and her green pieces have been seen in American Funeral Director, Community Seeds, and Living Green Magazine.

A Will For The Woods

We recently caught up with the folks responsible for the first green burial documentary – A Will for the Woods.  Here is what they shared with us…
Will-for-the-woods logoOver the last three years, we have been producing this documentary on the green burial movement, A Will for the Woods.  Initially, the topic of green burial intrigued us due to the environmental issues surrounding contemporary funerals, and the potentially vast and significant environmental benefits of green burial.  However, over the course of producing the film, we have been equally inspired by the cathartic and spiritual power of connecting to nature that one might experience in a green burial.
We have noticed that there is a lack of frank dialogue around death in the United States. We have a culture that is seemingly obsessed with death but frequently treats honest discussions of mortality as taboo. In starting to move the focus away from fear and toward a sense of connectedness with nature, community, and the cycle of life, the green burial movement has begun to shift the paradigm and culture around death. We hope our film will do the same in its intimate portrait of the movement and our main characters, Clark Wang and Joe Sehee.
Clark, battling lymphoma, is fighting for the right to be buried in a natural way and to make his story known to others, in the hopes of changing the culture around death. Meanwhile, Joe, head of the Green Burial Council, is fighting to establish and uphold the standards and environmental aims of the broader movement, as well as advocate its cause to policymakers and the funeral industry. These two story arcs will be delicately woven together to offer a direct encounter with dying and death-care, and the catharsis that green burial can offer, as well as, a window into the trajectory of this movement.
We believe our film, the first feature-length documentary on this topic, will help to further empower this grassroots movement and Will-for-the-woods-teamreach a large audience. Americans are fascinated by death, but looking for new ways to approach the concept. We hope this film can be a tool for discussion. Over the three years making this film, we have watched the growth of this deeply personal and meaningful environmental movement. It has inspired a broad and diverse group of advocates, and we are hopeful that this green burial movement will impact our cultural ideas around death and dying and also our respect for the natural world.

— Amy Browne, Jeremy Kaplan, Tony Hale, and Brian Wilson

Watch the new trailer!

You can learn more about the film by visiting:

Sharing The 2012 Penn Forest Picnic

Last month we hosted our annual picnic at Penn Forest.  We welcomed over 90 people – friends and family – for food and fun at Penn Forest.  And it was a lovely day!  Below are a few of the pictures from the event.  If you were at the picnic and have pictures you’d like to share, send them our way.  We’ll add them to this post!

Penn Forest Welcomes Furry Friends

 Picnic Tunes Through the woods we goCapturing Penn ForestDiscussing green burial


Relaxing at Penn Forest

Zero Fossil Setup

Zero Fossil brochure

Friends Laughing

Chow Line

Dogs Like Clean Energy Too

Power Bikes

Birds of Penn Forest

Picnic Tunes

Lovely Banjo Playing


Creating Stories


Tree Inspiration Session Cont'd

Penn Forest Tree


Explaining Green Burial To Friends & Family

I was recently asked my thoughts on how to explain green burial to a family member from my perspective as a psychologist.  So here they are:

  • Assume your family member knows nothing about green burial and that your first mission is to explain it, as in “I was reading an article about green burial and how it is the most traditional way to handle the body after death. Have you ever heard of it?” Remember while green burial has been practiced for thousands of years, burial with toxic embalming fluids and concrete burial vaults is what most people now think of as “normal.” Be patient; changing attitudes takes time and education.
  • Talk about green burial with friends who are less invested in the  end-of-life decisions you make for yourself. This will help you get better at explaining your own reasons for choosing a natural burial when you talk to a family member.
  • Don’t try to convince your family members that what is right for you is right for them. That will put them on the defensive and they are not likely to stay open to your ideas.
  • If your family member is not open at all to this “new” option for burial, accept that and let it be.  Just be sure that this person is not appointed as your “Agent for Body Disposition” because if they are, you probably will not get that green burial that you want. If you put a “Green burial is the way to go” bumper sticker on your car, everyone will know what you want!

If you purchase a plot ahead of time, it increases the likelihood that you will end up in it (it doesn’t make sense for the family to buy another plot in a non-green cemetery when there is a lovely site already paid for).  Remember – it is your body, your choice, but you have to set up the legal structure NOW because you won’t be able to after you are dead.

If you’d like to take steps to pre-plan your burial, a great place to start is the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Western PA.

Have you had experience talking to family and friends about your choice for a green burial?  We’d love to hear more about it.  Feel free to leave remarks in the comments below!


Post written by Nancy Chubb, PhD, MBA

Penn Forest Photo Contest

Photo contest to be held annual picnic

On June 9, we will hold our second annual picnic and invite friends, family and special guests to celebrate our first full year in operation.  When you visit Penn Forest, you will see a host of picturesque images to capture.  So, we want to put your camera to good use!

Here’s what to do

  • Capture your favorite aspect of Penn Forest. Is it one of the many native species? Is it a buzzing bee on a flower? Is it meeting new friends? We want to see Penn Forest through your eyes!
  • Email your favorite photo to by July 6, 2012 and we’ll upload one photo to our Picnic Photo Contest album on the Penn Forest Facebook Page.
  • Tell your friends and family to Facebook Like the photo on Facebook.

Determining the Winners

  • For each “like” on your photo, you will receive one point.
  • For every person you refer to our email newsletter, you will receive one point (the person has to list your name in the referred by section of the sign up process).
  • The entrant whose photo receives the most Points will win a Flip Ultra HD 4GB Video Camera!

Other Details

Voting on the pictures in the album on Facebook will begin on Monday, July 9 and end on Monday, July 16.  Any ‘likes’ incurred after Monday, July 16 will not count as a point.  During the same time frame, you can earn an additional point for every person that signs up for our email newsletter and lists you as the referrer.

Questions regarding the contest?

Contact Sarah Mayer, Penn Forest Marketing Consultant, at 412-225-2310 or via email at

Sharing Green Burial and Penn Forest with the ‘Burgh

Starting this month, you may see and hear more about green burial at Penn Forest around Pittsburgh.  We are sharing information about the cemetery in Print, Radio and Outdoor advertising.  This advertising is being added to what we are already doing to spread the word about the cemetery – our website, e-newsletter, video, Facebook, Twitter and our group on Linked In.

The latest issue of the Caregiver – a quarterly insert in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review –  is running our below ad.

Ad in Caregiver

Travel along Allegheny River Boulevard and you will see our billboard (going up mid-March).

And lastly, we will be an underwriting sponsor of Essential Public Radio (90.5 fm).  Do you listen to any of the following shows – Allegheny Front, Car Talk, Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, This American Life, Living On Earth?  If so, you’ll start hearing our message this weekend (March 17)!

Getting the word out about green burial options at Penn Forest is our goal with this campaign and we are excited to hear from folks interested in learning more.

Green Burial Equals Forest Restoration at Penn Forest

I have hiked and camped in many of the best forests in the eastern United States, both large and small.  To help sustain and expand them I’ve contributed to many environmental organizations, including the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, the Nature Conservancy, Sierra Club and most recently the Maine Woods Initiative of the Appalachian Mountain Club.

But by doing so, I rarely know how my contribution is actually spent or feel that I can have much of an impact on large-scale problems or projects.  However, lately I’ve found another way to better see and understand how to preserve a forested piece of land.  That is through my local green burial cemetery.

In green burial, bodies are buried in natural settings, without toxic or non-biodegradable materials, so the plants above benefit and the wildlife can flourish.  Think about how many more trees there could be if all of the approximately 4001 cemeteries in Allegheny County were green burial cemeteries with the graves spaced among the trees instead of in place of them.  Think of the benefits from all those trees!

The Benefits of Trees

  • Trees help to settle out, trap and hold particulate pollutants (dust, ash, pollen and smoke).
  • They absorb CO2 and other dangerous gases, and in turn, replenish the atmosphere with oxygen.  By some estimates trees produce enough oxygen on each acre for 18 people every day, depending on the species, climate, temperature and health of the trees.  Enough CO2 is absorbed on each acre of trees over a year’s time to equal the amount produced by driving a car 26,000 miles.2   
  • The trees also protect water quality and provide habitat for wildlife.

See the YouTube video the Importance of Trees for more evidence!

When a green burial cemetery is operated properly, the costs of the gravesite purchases and services provided can be used to contribute to sustaining and restoring the forest within its boundaries.

That is what I like about the Penn Forest Natural Burial Park. It is local; it is predominantly forested; but the land needs some help to restore it to a native-like Pennsylvania forest.  I can even work there on restoration days if I want to.  But most importantly, my purchase of a gravesite is helping to preserve a forest, to make it better, and I can see that, experience it, and enjoy it.


This post was provided by Roger Westman, Restoration Committee Member








Restoration of Penn Forest Natural Burial Park

Ecological Restoration is defined by the Society for Ecological Restoration International as “The process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged, or destroyed.” It is an intentional activity that initiates or accelerates ecosystem recovery with respect to its health, species composition and community, and its sustainability or resistance to disturbance and resilience. Restoration attempts to return an ecosystem to a state that resembles what it would have been if it had not been degraded. This restored system may not necessarily be exactly as it would have been since present conditions or activities can cause it to develop along a new path.

Thus is the state of Penn Forest. Our property has been degraded through excessive weather (e.g. windstorms), fire exposure, clearing and general damage caused by humans, with the result of diversity narrowing of flora and fauna species. We have an abundance of invasive understory plants that have taken over, and the existing native plants are showing signs of stress from this unnatural competition.

Restoration Committee Meeting

Restoration Committee Meeting

(Left to right: Janet Kikta, Pete McQuillin, Jeff Giles, Moni Wesner, Erin Copeland, Roger Westman, Mary Ruth Aull and Jeff Hodes. Absent: Kathy Raborn and Tom Bartman)


So given the present stressed conditions, what is the Restoration Committee to do to return Penn Forest to its more native state while still allowing it to meet its business plan for grave site sales and interments?

1)     Removing Invasives. Presently, we are working and planning spring work on the first two acres or so of our Phase 1 burial area. We are removing invasive plants and will be reintroducing more native plants. From this first area of success, we will spread our efforts into both contiguous areas and other areas that are not prohibitively infested. This spread will allow us to manage these pests and others and prevent them from being reintroduced into cleaned areas.

These processes of restoration combine Integrated Pest Management (IPM) into a method some Australian Restoration Ecologists have named, “The Bradley Method of Restoration,” which is to simply use the most effective and economic method to remove what you do not want and replant. When accomplished to the degree planned, then work moves on while you inspect what was done for new infestations. (If you are interested volunteering to help with this effort, please let us know via the website “contact us” area).

2)     Thinning Unhealthy Trees. We have a forest that needs some management. We are planning a meeting soon with a Pennsylvania State forester. With this person’s guidance, we will develop a plan (as part of our overall Restoration plan) for thinning out damaged and/or unhealthy trees from our forest. Although some areas are so dense that just doing this will not solve everything but it is a positive step that will allow us to plan for how future burial areas can be incorporated while allowing for a plan to restore some of the older growth. At this time we will introduce attempts to return our cemetery to a state that might resemble what it would have been if it had not been degraded while keeping our cemetery plan in mind.


Before and After Ground Story and Dead Tree Clearing of the Phase 1 Burial Area

3)     Creating a Restoration Plan. As our resident restoration ecologist, Erin Copeland, so aptly points out, “you need a plan for your restoration.” A restoration plan entails: a clear reason why the restoration is required, defining objectives, assessing existing conditions, planning for how the restoration will meet the objectives, and evaluating success. Of course, part of the plan includes a budget for the restoration and the long term maintenance. This will be a process that we will begin here shortly with the consulting forester and an evaluation of the plant and animal life that presently exists at Penn Forest. We plan to have the plan completed before the end 2012.


Being a part of this process is a valuable asset to the cemetery and its larger Penn Hills community. We appreciate those that are helping us now with our small phases of work to remove unwanted plants and lessening some of the safety concerns for visitors. If you feel so inclined, please sign up. As Kermit would say, “It’s not easy being Green” and we could add “but it is certainly worth the effort!”

Jeff Hodes,

Restoration Committee Chair


Why I Bought Lots at Penn Forest Natural Burial Park

My name is Georgette Griglia. I would like to tell you why I decided to go green at Penn Forest Cemetery. I believe when we leave this physical body in death, we go to the spirit side of life. Our bodies will go back to the earth in a natural way. Over the years attending many traditional funerals, I did not like anything about those funerals. They were always very stressful for the families and, with buying a casket and cement vault, and such a long process, you wonder what it is all for.

Pre-planning greatly eases your family’s burden of making decisions and the difference in price is unreal – a traditional funeral is about $7500.00; and that is just the funeral and not the plot. And the opening of the grave, the closing of the grave, the cement vault and the tombstone, are all extra, and some places they make you pay for the maintenance of the place too. I feel the funeral homes are making a good living from people that think they have no other recourse, but it is nice to know we all have a choice, and we do not have to do what our grandparents did.

I know I feel at peace knowing I will be surrounded with pretty grass flowers and trees and among birds and animals in a natural setting—just what I wanted.

Georgette Griglia

Hookstown, PA

Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.

“Reduce.  Reuse.  Recycle.”  That’s been my mantra for 30 years of living.   I‘d like it to be my mantra for my death as well.  My “green burial” will reduce toxins, reuse land and recycle my body.  Nature and the outdoors are very important to me.   I like the idea that I’ll leave a much smaller footprint at my death than if I opted for a conventional embalming and burial or even cremation.

I was thrilled when I heard that Pittsburgh would be home to a green cemetery.   Penn Forest is in a beautiful setting in an area where I have often walked.  Its proximity to Plum Creek and Dark Hollow Park are perks.  I imagine myself gently moldering away in a lush Western Pennsylvania meadow, warmed by sunshine, shaded by trees, birdsong in the air.  Natural burial seems a logical outgrowth of my lifetime philosophy.  I don’t know that all that will matter to me once I’m dead, but it matters to me now.  I’ve told family and friends about my plans. I’ve purchased a plot at Penn Forest.  Meadow lot #624 is waiting for me.

This post was written by Cecelia Hard of Pittsburgh, PA.