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Sharon Glassman

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What is Work: Why to Have a Green Burial from "The Green Reaper"

Posted: 01/12/10 02:20 PM ET

Some of us work for a better living. Elizabeth Fournier works for a better post-deathing.

As a one-woman funeral service in the rural town of Boring, Oregon, Fourner is eschewing big profits to prophet old-school burial practices that are kinder to humans and the Earth.

She calls herself the Green Reaper, a name that conveys her warmhearted take on funeral planning, a subject that can rival "Pap smear appointment-setting during tax time" in its "can we deal with this later?"-ness.

But there's something about a woman who writes a book called, All Men are Cremated Equal as a way of finding a mate (and finds one, in the form of a professional cremator, no less) that makes a person want to know more about Elizabeth and her green take on the doings-after-death business.

Like a lot of passionate professionals, Elizabeth Fournier met her dream career in childhood.

Fournier's mother and grandparents died when she young. Their funerals were a uniquely salty-sweet Aha! experience for her, similar to the young Anthony Bourdain's eating his first oyster.

"I enjoyed my time in the funeral home," she says. "There was something restful there, despite the grieving."

She read about different cultures' death rituals in National Geographic magazine. When friends' pets died, she says, "I'd perform the funeral."

Fournier's father worried that funerary services might not be the best choice for a petite blonde with actressy good looks and a winning way with words.

And so, Fournier majored in communications in college. Did commercials. Taught ballroom for Arthur Murray after graduation. She could have gone on this way, dancing La Vida Traditional-Professional.

She could have gone on this way forever, had Opportunity not knocked its bony hand on her door.

"But when I was in college," Fournier says, "I got an opportunity to live in a cemetery and be a night-keeper.

Sounds scary, right? Well,it was. But not for the reasons you might expect.

"It was the live people who scared me, not the dead ones," Fournier explains.

High school kids would hop the cemetery gate to get dead-drunk. It was her job, as gatekeeper, to "get in the hearse and get them out."

Truly drunk dudes liked to sneak back and peek into her trailer window while she slept. It was a massive un-perk, personally and professionally. Fournier's work-around?

"I slept with a shotgun under my bed."

Flash-forward 20 years. Fournier is a successful woman in a mostly-male profession. She's left the corporate funeral biz in San Fran to run a funeral business in rural Boring, OR, so she can be closer to her 70 year-old dad.

Things are approaching Normal in Boring. Until four years ago, when a local family asked Fournier if they could bury a loved one in their backyard.

Enter: the second Aha! of her career.

Cities and suburbs weren't home-burial friendly, Fournier learned. But rural communities were different.

"There's nothing in the books that said you couldn't be buried where you live," in Boring, Fournier discovered.

That raised the question of how one might like to be buried.

Burials used to be done with an eye to returning bodies to the earth. Uncle Nate as Nature's compost.

But during the Civil War, when huge multiples of soldiers died at the same time, far from home, bodies had to be embalmed before being trained home.

The idea of death as deferred decay was born. So was a profitable service industry that meets a cultural need of a disconnected society: helping mourners to assuage their guilt for not spending tons of time with Uncle Nate while he was alive by burying him big-time.

The Green Burial movement, by contrast, hastens decay by allowing bodies to touch the earth.

A person can be buried in her favorite blanket, or in an unvarnished, metal-free box, similar to traditional Jewish burials.

The ceremony by contrast, can be grassroots in another way. Which is to say: creative and deeply personal.

Fournier recalls a funeral where the mourners shared stories about a woman who had died while eating fish caught from her local river.

"It was almost like a party she would create if she were alive," she says.

"There are shades of green," Fournier likes to say.

A 100% Green funeral would involve transporting bodies via bicycle while wearing non-leather shoes.

But greening a funeral can make a lot sense, once you grasp the idea that your old body ain't comin' back to dance the tango, no matter how plush your coffin liner is.

Green funerals cost less. They're cleaner than cremation, which requires fuel to ignite and sends mercury (from fillings) and titanium (from joint replacement) into the air.

And they can, Fournier believes, make people happier - which is her self-definition of her job.

"We all mourn differently," she says.

Our culture has been slip-covering the DIY side of funerals for some time. But in Fournier's view, "it's the last thing you can do for someone."

All of which makes green burial sound positively down-to-earth and uplifting.


 

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