Elizabeth Fournier calls herself “The Green Reaper.” She runs a funeral home in Boring, Oregon, where she specializes in providing custom and creative burial services, particularly environmentally-friendly ones.
As the scientific community continues to ring the alarm on climate change, and activists advocate for measures to protect the planet, some like Fournier are reminding people that, as she says, having a green burial is “the last great gift we can give to the earth.”
I think that we go through our days thinking that we’re being pretty darn green, we’re bringing our sacks to the grocery store. We are putting our recycling out on the curb, we are maybe trying not to eat as much meat or maybe trying not to drink as much soda out of a can, things like that.
When it comes to the end of life, and we decide to make Mother Nature a greener place, the further step we can take with that is actually giving our bodies, which allows us to fully go back and nourish the soil and nourish the earth. And we can do that by having a simple natural or green burial.
The basic description of a green burial or a natural burial is someone who’s buried with least amount of preparation as possible. And what I mean by that is, the body is relatively untouched — so there’s no embalming. As far as the casket, it’s simple, it’s going to be natural cotton, we’re going to do something with wicker, natural wood and no elaborate metals, woods with varnishes, and those sort of things. And then being placed into the earth directly, meaning you’re not going to have a concrete liner, or some sort of other container steel, what have you around the casket. So it’s a natural body, in a natural container, just directly into the natural earth. That simple. So that’s environmental, that’s economical.
And it can look like anything, it can look like a bunch of people in their yard who have a space dug next to the garden or under the oak tree, and they’re having their loved one wrapped up in a beautiful quilt, and have a wonderful ceremony there. Or it can look like my father’s green burial. He was not embalmed, he was in a natural wood casket, but we still brought him downtown Portland, to the cathedral, we still had a hearse, we still drove to a little Catholic cemetery, but he had a natural burial there.
When I was a small child, my mother passed away. And right around that same time my father’s parents passed away too. So as a young child, I had three major losses all in my household. So I knew early on, my path was different than other children. And I also had a comfort with death, dying — all of this — more than other people. As I got older, people would come over and want to talk to me, or befriend me, if someone else passed away in their life, because I was probably the only person they knew who even went through something like that. l I wouldn’t say I was used to or I enjoyed, but it was just my, calling, my comfort level.
When I was in college, I had the opportunity to live in a cemetery and be the night keeper. And this was a big cemetery in the city of Portland. I was living in the trailer inside the actual cemetery. At the end of the day, I was supposed to go through the building through the mausoleum, lock everything up, clean the funeral home and get in the hearse, drive it around, and lock the gates. It was a really good experience to be in the cemetery world, in the funeral world. And about 16 years ago, this wonderful repurposed goat barn in Boring, Oregon, needed someone to run the place.
Within a very, very short period of time, I received a phone call from a family that lived down the street. One of their people had passed away, and they wanted to be able to bury her on the land. And I was completely intrigued, completely fascinated. I was transparent with the family and said, ‘I’ve never had this request. I’m not quite sure how to do it. But I want to make this happen with you. So let’s work together. And let’s find the answers.’ And sure enough, 24 hours from then we were having a beautiful grave service there, we were putting this lovely lady to rest, and it was lovely and beautiful and wonderful. Something about it was really elevating. It felt really amazing to see these people do this exactly the way they wanted, and still be legal, still be ethical. And it was so magical.
My funeral home is on 40 acres in the country. And since I own the funeral home, I am able to do a lot of real creative things that I wouldn’t be able to do necessarily if I worked for a corporation, or worked for a larger firm. So what I tell families is: I want to serve them anyway I can, that can help them save money, can help them save the planet, and I’ll do anything for them as long as it is ethical, and as long as it is legal.
With Covid-19 there hasn’t been as many people involved in visitations and funerals, but people are still dying, and actually, more people are dying. Something that happened really early on is I realized, okay, I have the ability to do some different things people can’t do, such as drive through funerals. I’m out here on a country lane, and I can wheel a loved one to the little parking lot in front of my funeral home, and people can drive by for a visitation or get out individually.
The ideas of grief and how to handle the mourning and the different rituals during the pandemic truly came by families expressing their needs. And when I was talking to a little elderly man and woman who are living in a nursing home, and they wanted to see their son — he was a long haul trucker, died suddenly of a heart attack, he was in his 50s — and the father called me. Little frail voice, he just said, ‘we need to see our boy.’ And they knew they wouldn’t be able to come to the funeral home, because the nursing home would not let them back in. And that’s all I needed to load him up in my vehicle and say, ‘I’m on my way!’. And right there in the parking lot of the nursing home, I just called the nursing home and said ‘We’re going to do this,’ and they said, ‘What are you planning on doing?’, and I had to sort of walk them through the steps, and they were very shocked this was going to happen. But then, while it was happening, and after it happened, their hearts opened to how magnificent this was.
My experience has really led to prove to me over all these years that having a natural burial, and doing this in a green fashion is really healing to families, they can go out to wherever the burial space will be. Either in a cemetery, a forest, a natural preserve, a yard; and they can really take their time. A lot of times, they can dig the space that they need. Most of the times, that people, the family, mourners, whomever, want to use a shovel and each take turns shoveling some earth back onto the loved one, and possibly even stay and refill the grave, and just be there, and breathe in those moments.
For iPondr, I’m Amanda Alcántara.
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