In the midst of lockdown, Elizabeth Fournier, a mortician in Boring, Oregon, received a phone call from two elderly parents about their 70-year-old son who had just passed. They wanted to see him, but felt unsure how it could be possible.
In a moment of inspiration, Fournier called the nursing home where the parents lived.
“My husband and I were able to get him (the son) in his casket, bring him to the van, and take him to the funeral home,” Fournier said.
At the nursing home, staff wheeled out the two elderly parents to say goodbye to their boy. There, underneath a carport, the couple grieved together as a nearby weeping willow gently caressed the casket that held their son.
This impromptu funeral inspired Fournier. Driven by the desire to help loved ones say goodbye during an age of socially distanced mourning, she continued to devise innovative solutions. Whether this meant casket drive-bys, or parades where the funeral car served as the float, Fournier would find ways to accommodate the family to help them say goodbye.
Creativity like this is no stranger to Fournier. A modern Renaissance woman — she dabbles in acting, occasional voice work, writing, and serves as a rescuer to goats — all on top of being a one woman show at her funeral home, Cornerstone Funeral and Cremation Services.
Throughout the years, her compassion and green attitude towards death has even gained her the nickname, The Green Reaper.
The path to earning this affectionate nickname was long in the making.
As a child in the late 1970’s, Fournier lost both her mother and grandparents within a short time span. After this experience, she began gravitating toward others who she could sense were grieving. By the time she was 13-years-old, Fournier said she knew her life calling was to become a mortician.
However, not everyone was convinced this would stick.
“I was blonde, I was perky and popular, you know, I wasn’t gothy. Everyone just told me ‘oh you’re making this up’ or ‘it’s just a phase,’” Fournier said.
Even after going to school for a degree in communications, and becoming a ballroom teacher, this “phase” wouldn’t shake. At 22, she secured a summer job as a night keeper at a cemetery, where she slept on property grounds with a shotgun underneath her bed.
This marked the start of her career in the death industry.
It wasn’t until she left her job in the corporate funeral world and found herself in Boring, in a former goat barn turned funeral home that Fournier finally found her purpose as a mortician.
This would all happen after a phone call with the simple question: can we bury our loved one on our property?
Never before had she received a call about a home burial. Although she only knew protocols for traditional funerals, she wanted to help, so she arranged to meet the family at a local bar to discuss further.
It was at this bar that Fournier began to learn more about Wanda, the woman who had passed.
As she spoke with the family members to complete the death certificate, they discussed Wanda’s occupation as that of a wanderer, and her industry: the Earth. Wanda’s title didn’t work for the certificate, but it stuck with Fournier. After a series of phone calls, county officials gave her the green light.
On the property of her family, Wanda the Wanderer was brought out wrapped in a quilt she had sewn herself years prior. While the funeral proceeded, guests shared a feast of fish caught by Wanda’s sons, sang songs together and held hands.
This experience sparked something in Fournier.
“As I drove home on the country roads here, I thought my calling was to be a mortician because I went through so much loss and grief as a young person,” Fournier said. “But what I really realized is that my calling is to do what I did that day. To allow a family to do what they want their way…give them closure as they need.”
After a while, clients began fondly referring to her as The Green Reaper after she began getting the reputation for conducting and advocating for more green burials; an environmentally friendly approach to burial, using biodegradable material.
The mindset of helping families receive the closure they need extends in the way she handles deceased loved ones who come through Cornerstone.
“She uses the term that she took someone into her care, and that’s exactly what she does…she cares for them,” Tammy Owen, a neighbor of Fournier’s, said.
Fournier says this new normal for funerals remains difficult for her at times. Throughout her life, she’s been the person to console those grieving. Whether by giving a hug, aiding in the burial of a pet, or just lending an ear to listen, she said.
The pandemic has presented a new set of unforeseen obstacles for all funeral directors, and no longer having the ability to physically console grieving loved ones is especially challenging.
“When you have a funeral director standing by to be helpful, that director is used to seeing people approach each other, hug each other, cry with each other, view the body together, and all those things that bring closure,” Wally Ordeman, executive director of The Funeral Directors Association, said. “None of this is happening. I’ll stop short of saying it’s depressing, but you take notice.”
With the pandemic, funeral directors across the state of Oregon are adapting their approach to comforting the loved ones of the deceased.
Fournier continues to write about her creative solutions, but mentioned that the most popular trend amid the pandemic for her funeral home has been virtual streaming. Family members will come to a visitation with their phones or laptop ready, and soon Zoom boxes with bobbing heads will appear to pay their respects.
With the new normal becoming predominantly virtual streaming for any funerals, Fournier finds it difficult to see a future without it.
“Now, everybody finds this to be the way it is. And so many people rather than spending the money for a flight might decide that, well you know we can have some sunlight and someone can Zoom it,” Fournier said.
Even with the physically distanced solutions becoming successful, they also make people realize how important it is to physically be there, Fournier said.
“It’s not for the person who died, but it’s for the people who are living and left behind,” Fournier said. “That fellowship, being in the room together, breaking bread together…you lose all that through the computer screen.”