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Going Green: Your Last Heroic Act of Volunteerism

Elizabeth Fournier, owner of Cornerstone Funerals, delivered this speech in Oregon at TEDxSalem. We won a Cicero Award in the category of Environment / Energy / Sustainability for her highly entertaining and informative speech, Going Green: Your Last Heroic Act of Volunteerism.


When it comes to the environment, we Americans love to volunteer. Millions of us recycle, grow our own herbs and vegetables, and even clean our beloved parks and hiking trails. But have you given much thought to the ultimate act of environmental volunteerism? You know, the one gift you give after you die? Well, I have, and that’s because, for nearly 30 years I’ve worked in the death care industry.

Since becoming a funeral home owner in 2005, my mission has been to educate the public about the importance of — literally — “going green” as their last heroic act of volunteerism.

My career is a calling far greater than me, predestined perhaps. That’s because as a child loss defined my world. Over a brief span of three years, in the home we all shared, one family member after the next, died.

When I was six, my paternal grandmother passed. At eight, my mother. And just about six months after my mom, my paternal grandfather. By the time I was nine I’d been to so many funerals I’d become something of an accidental expert.

Since the age of 13, I knew I wanted to work in the funeral industry. So when I finally found the courage to confess this secret wish to my dad, he paused and said, “Not only is mortuary science a very narrow career field, but you probably won’t be able to get a date to save your life.”

The first 15 years I worked in the corporate funeral business. Out of all my responsibilities selling graves and merchandise were my least favorite. Up-selling a family deep in the throes of grief was the worst. Each time I tried to sell I felt pathetic twice; once in front of the grieving family and again when management pointed out my low casket sales in our weekly meetings.

In fact, I despised this type of sales so deeply that when the chance to take over a rural, dilapidated and financially failing funeral home in Boring, OR arose I leapt at the chance! I could not wait to run things my way.

Not long after I took over I received a phone call from a woman who wanted to discuss funeral arrangements for her friend Wanda, who had passed away that morning.

I loved Wanda’s people. They were a close-knit group of gentle souls. While filling out the death certificate they were stumped as to why they weren’t allowed to list Wanda’s occupation as, “Wanderer” and her industry as, “the Earth.” After all, that was how she saw herself.

They called me because they wanted to honor Wanda by laying her to rest on the rural fifteen-acre Goddess commune, where she had lived. But there was just one tiny little question—was it legal to bury a loved one on residential property?

“Ummm,” I said, “I have no idea.”

To find out I called the local zoning department and discovered private land burials in Wanda’s county are indeed permissible and easy to obtain. So I lined up a backhoe and operator for the following morning, and while he was excavating, we prepared ourselves for the fitting ceremony that afternoon.

The service was top-drawer. Wanda’s friends and family played drums, chanted, shared

funny stories and spoke of her kindness. We all held hands to form a circle around her final resting place and stood in silence as her three sons lowered her gently into the ground.

Shovel by shovel, Wanda’s body was covered with damp, earthy, aromatic soil brimming with life force. In fact, this simple act felt a lot like planting a tree, offering up all of the promise and renewal that comes along with it.

Wanda’s family and friends conducted her funeral their way. I could see and feel how much comfort and closure staying with Wanda—from her last breath, until their final goodbye—brought them.

In fact, participating in an old-fashioned burial made me feel as if I had discovered something new. You see, most of my corporate career I had the nagging feeling that the impersonal nature of the, “traditional burial experience” was falling short for mourners.

But on this day, I felt I had truly helped those left behind complete the cycle of life the way nature’s grand design had intended it; to honor the loved one, while at the same time giving back to Mother Earth.

About a week after the burial, Wanda’s family called to share their comfort knowing that her body was now at one with the bio-network.

Their call meant so much to me. In all my years in the funeral industry no one had ever reached out to say, “thank you”. It was a financial transaction. Payment was considered the thank you.

People I talk with are often surprised to learn they have the right to ask questions and do things their way. When they realize this, they ask—

Can I make my own casket? Is it possible to be buried on my own acreage? Is an un-embalmed body good for the environment?

The Answer? Yes, yes and yes!

Green burials make so much sense. We came from nature, and nature is where we return. In fact, over 150 years ago *green burials* were the only option that is until embalming was introduced during the Civil War. However, it wasn’t until 1865 when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated—and consequently embalmed— that this new, *arsenic, mercury, soap and water body preservation process,* took center stage.

So the public could mourn, Lincoln’s body traveled over 1,600-miles by presidential train through 180 cities and seven different states. As a result of the extended publicity, the death care industry was born.

However, by the early 1900s, embalming fluid had to be reformulated because hundreds of medical students were falling deathly ill as a result of dissecting arsenic-laden cadavers. The replacement? The embalming fluid we use today— formaldehyde.

Essentially, we swapped one set of hazardous problems for another. Since the practice of embalming began in the 1860s, millions of bodies continue to leave a toxic black-mark on the ecosystem in ways rarely discussed.

And modern cemeteries aren’t any better. In the US, there are one million acres of tainted soil that pose a laundry list of potential groundwater problems—

At the top, are steel caskets. Over time, they degrade releasing harmful toxins into the soil. Additionally, casket manufacturers use spray-on varnishes and sealers to coat wood coffins, and some of the chemicals used are among the EPA’s 50 top hazardous waste generators.

When it comes to steel in the ground, there is an estimated 115M tons of it —that’s enough to rebuild the Golden Gate Bridge annually!

Which brings me to this— approximately 30% of the population is buried in a casket each year— which is roughly, 900K people.

What if this population opted for a green burial and donated the steel intended for their caskets to repair or rebuild our nation’s estimated 56,000 failing bridges? What a fabulous way to honor your legacy for generations to come! Right?!

While it’s true that the popularity of traditional casket burials is on the decline, its replacement is cremation, which not only poisons the earth, but is also hazardous to the ozone layer.

For example, many decedents have teeth with mercury fillings. Wood coffins and bodies turn to ash, and those tainted particles—varnish chemicals and mercury—float through the air landing on our farmlands, our park lands and in our oceans… tainting the food supply of our wildlife, our pets and ourselves.

Oh, and by the way, thinking about sprinkling grandma’s ashes in the garden? Think again. Ashes do not decompose, are high in salt, and are nutrient deficient. Place grandma’s ashes on your favorite plant and you will certainly kill it. What a helluva way to remember grandma!

We can do so much better. Why not celebrate a life well lived by helping to heal the planet? Some ways that we can leave a greener footprint are to—

Choose a biodegradable casket made from cardboard, wool or wicker. Or perhaps a pod made from newspaper, an all natural fabric shroud or a simple (yet elegant) pine casket.

No acreage? No problem! Consider a conservation burial to help set aside parkland for all eternity.

A few years before my father died we were talking about his hometown of Chicago. He reminisced about attending church, his childhood home, and for the first time, he mentioned the family funeral parlour where he’d spent countless hours playing Hide and Seek with his cousin.

I could not believe my ears! I thought, did he just say, “family funeral parlour”?

“Four generations back, in 1915, my great Aunt Mary was the first female in Illinois history to receive a Mortician's license. Her three sons followed in her footsteps and even today, Mary’s descendants run the place. The profession skipped a generation with me, but you should know that you are the 4th generation of morticians, on my mother’s side.”

“Seriously, Dad?! Why on earth did you wait all these years to tell me?”

“Well, the hours are long and the pay is lousy,” he said. “I thought your life would be better if you did something else. I guess I was wrong.”

My wonderful daddy recently passed. When it came to his burial he had two simple requests—

The first was to have a mass given by the Monsignor at the Cathedral in downtown Portland...

And the second? To be buried next to my mom and his parents.

Yes, the burial was green. I chose a non-toxic wood casket that was reminiscent of mom’s. Dad wore a 100% biodegradable wool suit and we skipped embalming. Surprising since it’s the Catholic church? Perhaps. The good news is that Pope Francis is both a huge supporter of the environment and green burials.

The truth is, as an Undertaker I assist the living far more than dead. Over the years I’ve learned death is here to teach us about loss, about letting go, but most importantly about living. And perhaps one of the most important facts of living is understanding one day, each one of us will die.

Most likely while you’ve been here on planet earth, you’ve lived responsible, sustainable, conscientious lives. So I challenge you, why not continue that trend, ‘til the end?

My dream is that green burials become the go-to choice for life’s last stop—and I believe when we rebrand the narrative around death, one day “going green” will be considered the standard, and our last great heroic act of environmental volunteerism.


Curious about Going Green? To learn more, order Elizabeth's book today!


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