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.

Progress At Penn Forest

The Pins are in Place! 

Part of every cemetery’s design process is the layout and identification of graves sites. To comply with Pennsylvania law the cemetery must:

  • Precisely locate every gravesite,
  • When an interment occurs, dig the grave in that precise location, and
  • After the burial, establish a system to find that grave in perpetuity.


Some people think grave markers or headstones serve this purpose, but that is not usually the case. Many cemeteries do not use grave markers (flat to the ground natural stone or wood markers are optional at Penn Forest); so another system must be developed.

This starts with the landscape architect’s interpretation of the topography and other features of the landscape. From there, burial sections are mapped out. In the phase 1 burial area at Penn Forest (about a 3-acre tract) our architects laid out four sections: Woods A, Woods B, Woods C and Meadow, with select cremation sites within those sections.

(pictured above left to right:  Wooded Burial Area A and Wooded Burial Area B)

After the sections were mapped, gravesites were created on paper and a numbering system for them was established. Then a surveyor put wooden stakes in the ground to exactly mark key locations on the grave layout grid.

The entire area is laid out with gravesites, but about half of the area is designated for reforestation, and burials will not take place there for perhaps fifty years or so until after new trees have grown up. In other non-reforestation areas where we are selling lots, there are existing trees, and we cannot sell lots under or near those trees, so that further reduces our inventory of lots available for sale. Of course, eventually all trees will die and need to be removed, and then those gravesites, which are already mapped, will become available for sale (we are currently working to add an interactive “Available Lots” map feature on our website, where website visitors can pick out sites they want to buy and put 7-day holds on them. This will include a satellite-mapping feature with the capability to zoom in on any available gravesite).

The surveyor’s wood stakes are only temporary, so on November 29th and 30th Pete and I replaced them with numbered cast aluminum lot pins in the Meadow, the A, B, and C woods sections and in the selected cremation areas. I have to say that we really picked swell weather for this activity. These were the only days in that week that it snowed, we had gale force winds, and it rained in buckets. But wearing bright yellow rain suits and armed with string lines, spikes, tape measures, spades, hot coffee, peanut butter crackers and determined hearts (and some vague remembrances of our 10th grade geometry) we persevered. In those two days we placed over 100 lot pins in the ground. With these pins in place we will be able to either show an individual the precise location of the lot they will be buying, locate the exact place in which an interment needs to be made or find a loved-one’s grave.

Before these pins were placed, we had to have a surveyor come to locate individual gravesites. However, with the pins in the ground, we can now precisely mark each grave to within an inch or so, using only a string line and tape measure. And if something should happen to any of the pins In the future, everything is backed up on our master plan maps.

Here is what we do now to open a grave:

  • A cemetery worker finds the location on the master section map and determines the distances between the four pins needed to locate the site on the ground. (Penn Forest’s basic grid is 16’ x 32’ which includes 16 individual 4’ x 8’ gravesites.)
  • Then this information is taken onto the grounds, and using the required four lot pins, the worker measures the precise distance between these pins—two horizontal and two vertical—to find the selected site and puts four wood stakes in the ground to mark the corners of the gravesite.
  • Then a second cemetery worker independently double-checks the work of the first worker, so that when the excavator operator is ready to dig, there can be no mistake about where the grave boundaries are.

When you visit the cemetery during the winter months, you will also notice some taller stakes in the ground with pink flags on them. These ‘winter stakes’ are placed at select lot pin locations so they can easily be found in snowy weather and from those pins graves can be located.

This precise process means our lot owners and their families can be sure Penn Forest will meet the goals we set in the first paragraph of this post and comply with the requirements of Pennsylvania cemetery law. They can feel confident that their or their loved one’s remains will be buried in the site they selected, and that Penn Forest will always be able to locate that grave in the future.

We are happy to have reached this milestone and look forward to showing you around the cemetery soon!


This post provided by Jeff Hodes of Cemetery Management Solutions, LLC.


Watch and Learn More About Penn Forest

Please enjoy the first video about green burial at Penn Forest Natural Burial Park!  The video shares the story of one family’s journey to green burial along with a great overview of Penn Forest.

We hope you enjoy the video and please share it with your friends and family. As always we welcome your comments and feedback!


1st Video

Learn About Penn Forest Natural Burial Park






Buy – Don’t Be Sold

Everyone likes to buy, but no one likes to be sold

I love to shop for what I want—to compare prices and product features, go online and look at all the independent reviews and see what best meets my needs. Then I can contact stores or websites and comparison shop and get the best deal.

But shopping for cemetery lots seems to defy that strategy. I tried doing a Google search on “cemetery reviews.” What I got was recommendations on which cemeteries were worth visiting for their scenic views and famous people buried there and business reviews of their sales figures and profits and losses. The closest I got to customer reviews were testimonials some cemeteries publish on their websites, where their customers rave about the good service they got, the friendly staff or the beautiful grounds. But can you imagine a cemetery (or any business for that matter) publishing all the complaint letters they’ve received alongside the testimonials? Neither can I.

As far as I can tell, there are no independent ratings or review websites for cemeteries or funeral homes. What’s a shopper to do to find the best cemetery for her or him?

Well, for one thing, it is important when comparing cemetery prices to consider everything that is included in burial costs. For example, some cemeteries connected with funeral homes offer low cemetery lot pricing, since they know they’ll make up the difference with high funeral home service fees later. Others that do not adequately fund perpetual care of their property may offer very low pricing, but it is doubtful that the property will be maintained for the long term.

In addition, most cemeteries require that your survivors purchase a burial vault (outer burial container) at the time of your death. These can cost between $500 to $1500, or more but are not required for green burial at Penn Forest. Usually, when burial vault costs are included in the total, Penn Forest lot pricing is equal to or lower than total costs at conventional cemeteries.

Another factor is that buying cemetery lots is usually a once-in-a-lifetime event. And it’s something that can be put off almost indefinitely.

So how do conventional cemeteries find and sell to their customers. Many use telemarketers, junk mail and email solicitations and advertising blasts. Some use commissioned sales people, whose job it is to “overcome your objections” one by one and whose mission is to get make sure you don’t leave their property without buying. That’s not how I want to buy or sell at Penn Forest.

Our approach at Penn Forest Natural Burial Park is different. First of all, our customers are different. Most of our buyers are interested in green burial, not harming the environment and restoring the forests. That is a special interest other cemeteries cannot fulfill.

Our sales philosophy is to let our customers make up their own minds; no matter how long it takes, and then tell us when they’re ready to buy. I have had people make five visits to Penn Forest before they bought their lots.

We have no sales people. Rather than advertising, we spend our limited marketing dollars educating people on why green burial might be a choice they might want to consider.

So, for that reason, I do a lot of work building up our email list. It’s an opt-in email list, so everyone on it has asked to be on it, which makes it even trickier to build. For that reason, I need your help in referring people you know to the list. So we don’t do telemarketing. We don’t send you sales emails.

In fact, we don’t solicit at all. But, in order for this low-key approach to work, we need a really big email list, so that at any given time, some people on our list will be ready to buy lots.The way we go about selling is to build up our email list, send out infrequent educational newsletters and other blurbs to make sure people don’t forget about us when they’re ready to shop for cemetery lots. And when they’re ready to buy, they contact us.

If you’re not yet on the list, click here: Join My Mailing List and make sure you add my email address ( to your address book, so our emails don’t go to your junk mail folder. If you are on the list, please forward our newsletters and emails to everyone you know and ask them to join too.

Thanks for your help!


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Funeral Directors Embrace Green Burial

Why some funeral directors are starting to embrace green burial

Today, the Cremation Association of North America announced that they are projecting that in 2010 more than 40% of deaths in North America will result in cremation. That’s up from 38% in 2008. In our area (Middle Atlantic) the percentage will be 36% in 2010, which is up from 34% in 2009. For families that represents a big savings over conventional cemetery burial. But for funeral homes it represents a big loss in income.

Primarily for this reason, many funeral homes are failing financially. Others are just getting by with their funeral directors foregoing maintenance and repairs of their facilities and taking on second jobs to pay their bills.

However, there is now a group of funeral directors who see green burial as a niche opportunity that they can go after to keep their businesses in the black and provide a needed new service to families. Actually, at least in our area, they see three niches:

  • First, recent surveys of green cemeteries have revealed that about 80% of families who chose green burial for a family member were originally going to opt for cremation, but they changed their minds when they learned about green burial—a more environment-friendly choice. Because of this, green oriented funeral homes are now making sure their cremation families are aware of green burial as an option. Often they weren’t aware of this choice, and decide it’s what they want for their loved one, even if it costs a bit more than cremation.
  • Second, because there are only a few green cemeteries, some people who want a green burial must find a cemetery a considerable distance from their homes. Penn Forest Natural Burial Park, for example, located in Pittsburgh, serves nearly all of Pennsylvania and is the closest green cemetery for large parts of Maryland, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia and Delaware. Hence, we will be having many burials that would not normally come to our area. Nearly all of those families will need a local Pittsburgh funeral home, and that is business that they would not get if Penn Forest wasn’t here and they weren’t certified by the Green Burial Council.
  • Finally, many families who elect green burial also want a home funeral. For this reason, several local funeral homes have decided to help families with this option too. Again, that’s business they wouldn’t get without green burial.

So we are finding that a small group of visionary funeral directors in our area have figured out that green burial can be a source of new business and not a threat to their existing business, and they have been eager to form relationships with us. So, we have compiled a list of these area funeral homes and we make it available to all our customers.

So I ask you, are these funeral directors on to something? Is green burial the wave of the future for the funeral home business?



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