Green Cemeteries


Published by IN Community Magazines – Penn Hills Summer 2016

PITTSBURGH – Since opening in 2011, Penn Forest Natural Burial Park has become a center for green and sustainable projects in the Penn Hills area.

“Burials are just part of what we do,” says co-owner Pete McQuillin. “Penn Forest is a place for living – not a place for dying.”

McQuillin and co-owner Nancy Chubb opened Penn Forest as a green cemetery five years ago, but they have also launched a number of other projects in the last several years, including an attempt to restore natural Pennsylvania meadows and grow hydroponic crops. McQuillin and Chubb have 32 acres near the Penn Hills Community Park but so far only two and a half acres have been set aside for burial plots.

“We want to be a resource for the community,” McQuillin says. “We want to be a place for people to come out and try their ideas. We have all this land and wanted to make use of it. A lot of people present ideas to me and I always try to say yes.”

McQuillin’s interest in sustainability began during his previous career as a packaging engineer.  He helped design returnable packaging products that were environmentally friendly. However, he was laid off and decided to open Penn Forest because the nearest green cemetery was in Ithaca, NY. Although other local cemeteries offer green burial sections, Penn Forest is the only cemetery in Pennsylvania to be certified by the Green Burial Council, which sets national standards.

“I didn’t want another job – I wanted something more fun,” McQuillin said.

McQuillin and Chubb were interested in green burials on a personal level before they decided to open Penn Forest. Being interred at Penn Forest means that everything used in the burial is environmentally friendly and will decompose.  For instance, no embalming fluids are employed and most of burials use a simple cloth shroud. If a coffin is utilized then it is built without nails, and grave markers are made from native stone or wood.

“Death becomes a part of restoring the land and the earth they came out of,” Chubb says. “It offers a sense of being one with nature.”

Chubb says green burials tend to be cheaper than traditional burials because there’s no need for a concrete burial vault and a cloth shroud is far less expensive than a coffin.

Penn Forest has space for about 1,400 plots, and individuals from Pennsylvania as well as Ohio, Maryland and West Virginia have purchased space at Penn Forest. The cemetery is non-denominational and individuals of many different faiths have been buried in Penn Forest including a Wiccan priestess. The cemetery also includes a Jewish section that was consecrated by a rabbi. The Jewish portion also includes a path so that mourners can stop and pray seven times before approaching the grave. Penn Forest also includes area where cremated remains can be scattered.

Penn Forest even takes a natural approach towards maintenance and upkeep. For example, McQuillin and Chubb use goats to control the vegetation instead of resorting to weed whackers or herbicides. The goats love to eat invasive species such as privet, an ornamental hedge, and Japanese knotweed. McQuillin and Chubb also recently completed a barn and have created small farm near the cemetery that includes ducks, chickens, bees and rabbits. Chubb says she came up with the idea because her grandparents had a dairy farm in Robinson and she later became interested in urban farming. McQuillin and Chubb have also enlarged a nearby pond in order to start raising fish and growing hydroponic crops.

“Anyone who buys a cemetery plot feels an affinity with the farm,” Chubb says.

The goats have also created a lot of interest and brought visitors to the Penn forest complex. McQuillin and Chubb have also provided space to a local blacksmith who offers classes on how to repurpose old pieces of metal and reuse them. Part of the Penn Forest cemetery have been set aside to help restore native Pennsylvania meadows. In 2015, McQuillin laid down a large plastic tarp to kill off everything growing in the area. In March, he removed the tarp and volunteers began pulling up the dead plants. Eventually, the goal is to replant the area with native vegetation. Chubb and McQuillin also organize an annual memorial tree planting that helps diversify the canopy by reintroducing native species. A graduate student from Chatham University will also work as an intern over the summer and help with various sustainability projects.

Other future projects include building a greenhouse and creating a willow tree garden. The trees could be planted to create a labyrinth where visitors could meditate. McQuillin says he also plans to take classes and learn how to create coffins using willow. Chubb says she would like to create a flower garden so that visitors can cut blooms and place them on the graves of their loved ones.

McQuillin says green burials are becoming more popular and sales at Penn Forest cemetery have been increasing about 20 percent a year. Chubb said that, until recently, people thought they only had two options – traditional burial or cremation.

“People want to be more conscientious about how they use the earth’s resources,” she says.

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