Simple green burials create serene final resting spots
Mary Ann Kilkuskie steps into the forest clearing and gazes down at the mound of dirt before her.
This was the latest one, the cemetery manager explains. The undergrowth was cleared out, the spot marked in the cemetery records, and then a 4-foot-deep hole was dug. No embalming fluids were used, no fancy casket and no concrete burial vault. In this case, the deceased chose a simple pine casket, though most folks prefer nothing more than a shroud.
“Now, over time, the coffin collapses and the earth settles in,” says Pete McQuillin, co-owner and founder of Penn Forest Natural Burial Park, as he motions to the 2-foot-high mound. “And after that — you become one with the earth.”
“Which is the idea,” Kilkuskie says quietly.
“Yes, it is,” McQuillin replies.
It's an idea that is becoming increasingly popular: green burials.
And at Penn Forest Natural Burial Park, that's the only type of burial McQuillin does.
Here, the dead are buried simply, without chemicals or even, in most cases, grave markers. Here, a spot is cleared in the forest, a hole is dug and the body goes in. When the earth settles — after a year or so — McQuillin plants trees and other native plants, then steps back as the forest takes over, reclaiming the grave naturally.
“We've always been about sustainability,” says McQuillin, who runs the cemetery with his wife, Nancy Chubb. “When I leave the Earth, I want to leave it a little better than it was before. One way to do that is by planning the disposal of your body so it doesn't negatively impact the land.”
In Pennsylvania, three cemeteries provide certified green burials, according to the Green Burial Council, a nonprofit organization that advocates for environmentally sustainable burials: Paxtang Cemetery in Harrisburg, West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd, Montgomery County, and McQuillin's Penn Forest Natural Burial Park. The Catholic Cemeteries Association also recently opened a green burial section in the Holy Savior Catholic Cemetery in Pine and Richland. More than a dozen funeral homes in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties provide green burial services.
Until recently, however, finding a green burial cemetery was a challenge.
McQuillin and Chubb learned this firsthand in 2008, when they decided to research green burial cemeteries and buy lots for themselves. But the closest one was in Ithaca, N.Y., a five-and-half-hour drive from Pittsburgh.
“I said in exasperation, ‘Somebody ought to open a green cemetery in Pittsburgh!' ” McQuillin recalls.
His wife looked at him and inquired: “Well, what are you doing?”
Two years later, they bought the land in Penn Hills and got zoning approval for cemetery use. In 2011, they buried their first client — Gill Allewelt, who had a brain tumor but told McQuillin he would not die until the cemetery was ready to receive him.
The most recent burial, a couple of weeks ago, was the cemetery's 34th. More than 170 sites have been sold, to people as far away as Ohio and West Virginia.
The cemetery sits on 35 acres of hilly forest above Verona. McQuillin's master plan allows for 14,000 burials over the next 200 years.
“Now, you want to pick your spot? That costs $2,200 per site,” he says. “If you don't care about the spot, that's less ($1,800 per grave site).”
There are no tombstones, just simple markers.
The family of Pam Vaughn, who died in 2012, brought in a stone from the family's hunting cabin for her grave. The dish-sized marker says simply: Pam Vaughn. 6-4-58 - 9-18-12.
“She asked me one day if I'd ever heard of green burials, and I hadn't,” says her son, Christopher Vaughn II of Ross. “But the more I looked into it, the more I liked it.”
Vaughn was a smoker who died from lung cancer. Before her death, she told her son: “I spent my whole life putting chemicals into the air and my body. I want to be done with that when my time comes.”
“When she died, I knew exactly what I had to do,” he says. “Now I feel kind of obligated to campaign for it, for her. Because I agree with it. The way our culture looks at death and the weird stuff we do to our bodies after we die, it's very strange. This is better.”
Not everyone has a grave marker.
“Most don't,” McQuillin says. “I'm not sure what that's about.”
“Oh, I think I'd like a marker,” Kilkuskie says. “I think my kids would feel better if I had one.”
McQuillin points to a grove of trees. Four little red flags stick up from the soil, forming a rectangle.
“That's the spot of the next burial,” he says. “I don't know who it'll be, only that it'll be here.”
For Kilkuskie and others, the idea of a green burial provides a sense of peace. Death is a frightening prospect, but to imagine becoming part of a place like this — with its wildlife, natural beauty and serenity — makes death seem less like a final act and more like the next step in an ongoing, natural process, they say.
“I don't want to be embalmed. I don't want to be cremated because I think the fire is too violent,” says Kilkuskie, 69, who is healthy but wants to plan ahead so her children won't have to. “This is so natural. This is how people were buried in the beginning of time, but it's evolved into something else. I don't want that. I want the sky, the trees, the ground ... everything here.”
McQuillin is serious about adhering to sustainable practices. He uses goats to manage the vegetation, not power tools or herbicides. He intends to plant a “Sally Garden” of willow, to be woven into biodegradable caskets. He wants his cemetery to be a place of renewal, not anguish.
Rob and Joyce Brugnoli, 73 and 67 respectively, are sold. They drove in from their home in Conneaut Lake to tour Penn Forest Natural Burial Park, and they said afterward they will buy plots here.
“We look at burials in cemeteries and see the wastefulness of it,” Rob Brugnoli says. “This is the way to go.”
Years ago, they bought plots in a North Huntington cemetery. Now, they say they will sell those plots and use the money to buy their final resting spots in this quiet Penn Hills forest.
“We've been concerned about the environment our whole lives,” Joyce Brugnoli says. “This seems like a comforting way to go.”
Chris Togneri is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5632 or firstname.lastname@example.org.