From DJ to "Green Reaper"
Ever since Elizabeth Fournier was a child, she has been fascinated by death. So much so that she made a career switch from radio DJ to mortician.
Now 42, she is affectionately known as the "Green Reaper" and is considered an authority on green burial--a movement that is gaining significant traction in the funeral business. She works as a green mortician, educator and advocate in Oregon and is always ready to lend an ear, a hand...or a shovel.
In an interview with SecondAct, Fournier talks about the role of an environmentally conscious funeral director, the social challenges of her career choice and the beauty of death. Did you know that in some parts of the country you can be buried under your favorite oak tree?
SA: What is a green burial?
EF: No chemicals, no metals, no concrete. The wood casket is made with nontoxic glue, no nails or screws, and then you are placed directly into the ground without a grave liner and without embalming. You can be in a sheet or naked--whatever you want. The grass in the meadow looks exactly how it did--no headstone. Some graves can be marked with a small rock. The concept is that you want to go back into the earth. Some people have trouble with that--they want some kind of memorialization. Even just a pot of flowers. People always feel like there's got to be something. Some cemeteries are now opening a "green area" for green burials.
SA: What about cremation? Isn't that environmentally friendly?
EF: Some people think so because it takes less space. But the problem is the emissions. It takes a lot of energy to cremate someone. Now they're trying to make it water-based, where they put you in water and spin you around. But as humans, we are very attached to our bodies. I think it will take us a while to accept water cremation. In Scandinavia, they freeze-dry you and then crunch you up into little bits to be used as compost. They are much less sentimental about death in other parts of the world.
SA: I guess the obvious question is: What's a nice girl like you doing in an occupation like this?
EF: I've just always found death fascinating. When I was eight, my mother died after a long decline, and my father's parents lived with us, and died around the same time. In Catholic school, everyone but me had parents and grandparents. I felt like I had the market cornered on being different, because I knew about death first-hand. After that, if someone's hamster passed away, I would come over and dig the grave and preside over the cemetery. "He was a very good pet," I'd say, and then do a few "Hail Marys" and "Our Fathers" and help him on his way to heaven. After high school, I wanted to go to mortuary school, but my dad said to consider going to get a more general education. Plus, he said, no one will date you. I got a degree at Linfield in mass communications, and during school I deejayed--my handle was "Liza Jane." But even though I did that for a few years, I kept thinking I wanted to go back to school in mortuary science.
SA: Is it difficult to begin a conversation with someone about death and funerals?
EF: It depends on their mental space and their age. When people come in to talk to me, it's usually because someone is going to pass away or has. So it's about being kind--letting people talk, making eye contact, etc. We all go through this. And it's not a happy thing. Some people suffer for many, many years, so it might be good thing, but the ones left behind will be sad and heartbroken.
SA: You're not a funeral director in the traditional sense...
EF: Not at all. I got the name Green Reaper because, in addition to being a green mortician, I am also an educator and advocate for green burials. My purpose is to share my knowledge and help make the world a little greener. I am darn close to a nonprofit, which is OK because my overhead is paid for and I am just happy to consult. How do I do this in my yard? How do I make an urn out of papier-mâché? So I spend a lot of my time talking.
SA: I bet your dad was right--I bet it was hard to get dates when you became a mortician.
EF: It wasn't as hard to find a date as it was to find someone to marry! I had broken up with a fiancé and was 35 and living in San Jose. I was tired of dating and decided I wanted to find THE ONE. I had 10 traits I was looking for. So I asked friends to fix me up, and boy, did they! I turned the results of the next couple of years into my book, All Men Are Cremated Equal: My 77 Blind Dates.
SA: Since you're married now and have a toddler, I assume your dating project worked?
EF: Yes, though I didn't meet my husband through a blind date. He was someone I met through being a mortician, and that was important since I really wanted someone who would be OK with my career.
SA: How did you end up in Boring, Oregon? And is it?
EF: (laughs) Not at all--it's gorgeous! I got a call that a funeral home 20 miles outside of Portland was closing, so I thought I'd drive out there. It was the most beautiful drive, along the Clackamas River. Everyone was so darn nice, it was like a movie. It was just a handshake deal, and I ended up buying the place.
SA: You say you're an expert in home burials. Where is it legal to bury people in their own backyard?
EF: Check with your county. In my own county, there was nothing on the books so people just started doing it. There are regulations, though: You have to be a certain number of feet from buildings if you want to bury someone on private property. You have to be 50 feet from your neighbor's home, and not near waterways, etc.
SA: You seem to view death as a thing of beauty, not something tragic and gruesome.
EF: Oh, I have transcendent moments all the time. This woman died young, at 34, and the way her husband handled it was just beautiful, with their two little kids. And people come in and tell me stories that stick with me for a long time. These things are gifts people give me. And there are stories about families who can't afford a proper funeral, and I see people step forward to help. Or if someone dies, the community comes together to help. There is beauty in everything--even death!