Oregon's 'Green Reaper' Is on a One-Woman Crusade to Change the Way We Bury Our Dead

"If you walk green in life, why not do the same in death?" Elizabeth Fournier tells PEOPLE

Photo: Elizabeth Fournier

Working out of a remodeled goat barn in the small town of Boring, Oregon, [pop. 8,000], Elizabeth Fournier is doing her part to change the way Americans bury their dead.

“We’ve become more closed off to death than we were in the past,” Fournier, who is affectionately known as the “Green Reaper,” tells PEOPLE. “We’re very uncomfortable with it. We teach sex education, but we don’t teach death education. Death is definitely part of the circle of life.”

For the past 10 years, Fournier, a former model and spokeswoman for a casino, has been running her Cornerstone Funeral Services in the rural Oregon community, located 20 miles from Portland.

Fournier, whose mother died when she was 8, comes from a long line of morticians and seemed destined to work with the dead.

“I was just this strange, quirky kid,” says the 47-year-old mom, “who people sought out to talk about death with.”

Fournier spent years working in the corporate funeral home world, but decided she wanted to do things differently when she finally opened up a mortuary of her own. She allows families to make payments for her services, doesn’t “push” merchandise and even helps coordinate home burials in those parts of the state where it’s allowed.

Besides being a longtime champion of “green burials,” she’s also determined to do whatever she can to take the financial sting out of funeral expenses, which – after the cost of embalming, a casket and burial – can often cost upwards of $7,000. [Fournier charges around $2,000 for a traditional burial.]

“Death isn’t free,” says Fournier, who often refuses to charge grieving parents – whose young children have died – for her services. “It’s a big hardship that families have to endure and by the time a loved one dies they are often tapped out emotionally and financially.”

Fournier, who met her husband in a crematorium, insists there’s nothing spooky about her profession. “The living scare me more than the dead,” she laughs. “I just always try and be as reverent as possible. When I close the lid to a casket at night, I always say ‘goodnight,’ tell them they are safe and leave some lights on.”

She’s equally passionate about making burials more environmentally friendly. She’s an advocate of skipping the use of embalming fluids, caskets and concrete burial vaults – and burying the body in a biodegradable shroud or a simple wood coffin that will decompose over time.

“If you walk green in life, why not do the same in death?” says Fournier, who launched a line of paper mach urns made from dryer lint, flour and water, which she often donates to financially-strapped families. “It’s a fantastic way to tread lightly. And green burials can also save another kind of green – the green in people’s wallets.”

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