Under the ground, there are bodies, not encased in lined caskets, but in simple shrouds and biodegradable coffins. Aboveground, acres of woodland give way to a hobby farm with goats and other animals, arched hoop houses, a flower meadow, an herb garden, and other amenities that would make any modern homesteader envious.
When I learned that a green cemetery — an eco-conscious, alternative burial ground — sat just minutes outside of Pittsburgh, I didn’t know what to expect. My morbid little brain conjured a rustic, backwoods country scene, of cautiously stepping over conspicuous, newly dug plots of earth, too afraid to disturb whoever had been recently buried there. Unlike traditional cemeteries or graveyards, I felt as though I’d be more aware of the bodies, like they were more exposed somehow.
Instead, a winding gravel driveway leads me to an attractive, recently constructed house, the center of operations for Penn Forest Natural Burial Park, touted as the first and only certified natural burial grounds in Pennsylvania, located a short drive from Pittsburgh in Verona. Instead of sober, suited funeral directors, I meet with Laura Faessel and Maria St. Clair, the caretakers and managers, who are dressed more for gardening or a short hike. Both women are all smiles as we prepare to tour the grounds, putting on their shoes and protective sun hats, despite the day being overcast.
As we walk through the nearby woodlands, they point out various lots sectioned out for burials, including one marked for those of the Jewish faith, which Faessel says was blessed by a rabbi.
“This is the first requested section that we had from a religious community,” says Faessel.
As the Penn Forest website definitively states, people “of all faiths are welcome.”
Some of the graves, all of which are marked with simple stones bearing the names of the deceased, have flowers placed there by loved ones (this is fine, Faessel says, as long as the flowers are real and not artificial in order to maintain the eco-friendliness of the grounds). On the trail, Faessel points out a memorial stone structure built by a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette journalist who, after writing about Penn Forest, felt moved to put something there.
Co-founded in 2008 by Nancy Chubb and the late Pete McQuillin, Penn Forest has sought to provide an alternative end-of-life choice in an industry where options are otherwise limited to caskets or cremation. It adds to a growing movement of green cemeteries spread throughout North America, around 350 by Faessel’s count.
The website for the Green Burial Council, a nonprofit organization that offers certification and best practices for Penn Forest and others, provides a long list of green cemeteries in each state, as well as in Canada and Guatemala.
“Most people who come here are lovers of the environment, they love nature. A lot of people who come here are already trying to be environmentally friendly in their lives and they’re like, 'I want to die the same way,’” says St. Clair. “There are also people who choose this just because it makes more sense, it’s more practical, it’s generally less expensive.”
She and Faessel add that some of the people buried there were hunters, or arborists who wanted to still be among the trees after death.
“But the main reason is that people don’t want to leave any trace when they die, and they want a simple burial,” says St. Clair.
The two women estimate that they perform between 36 to 40 burials a year, and that almost 300 people total, both as “full body and cremated remains,” are buried across the 35 acres encompassing the Penn Forest burial site. Overall, nearly 700 plots have been sold.
“We do get people that come in pre-planned and we recommend that people do that, because you’re getting what you want, you’re getting it at today’s prices, and it’s easier on the people that you leave behind,” says Faessel.
However, they do take clients who are already deceased — on the morning of my visit, Faessel says someone had called about an “at-need” burial for someone who has just died.
The ease of the process was one of the reasons Randy Weinberg and Barbara Gengler, a retired married couple living in Squirrel Hill, recently bought plots in Penn Forest. This is in addition to wanting something that would be more friendly to the environment.
“We are definitely environmentally-minded people, which is a big part of the appeal of Penn Forest,” says Gengler, who learned about the practice during a talk McQuillin gave to the women’s auxiliary at the First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh. “Simple, natural, most like the way it all used to be.”
Preparing bodies for burial at Penn Forest combines the services of a funeral home with the green ideals of the space. As St. Clair explains, in most cases, a funeral home is responsible for picking up and cleaning a body for burial, and then following some more eco-friendly guidelines.
“They'll make sure that the person is dressed in natural, biodegradable clothing, so no polyester,” she says. “Instead of embalming the body, they'll keep the body in their refrigeration until the time of the burial.”
The funeral home also provides a shroud or biodegradable casket, such as one made of wood, bamboo, cardboard, or wicker. Unlike traditional caskets, which are made with non-earth-friendly materials like metal or plastic, and are surrounded by concrete vaults, these vessels break down naturally along with the body.
Even then, Faessel says any wood or stone used should be native to the region.
St. Clair adds that plot owners can even make their own shrouds or coffins to be buried in.
Like other burial grounds, including historic Pittsburgh spots like the sprawling Allegheny Cemetery and Homewood Cemetery, Penn Forest acts as a community greenspace in addition to a final resting place, welcoming hikers and nature lovers, and even hosting regular events like goat yoga.
Myrna Patterson has, since 2017, worked as a yoga instructor at Penn Forest. She became fascinated with the space after meeting McQuillin at a North Side coffee shop where she was teaching a yoga class. At the time, Penn Forest was still in the planning stages.
“When he told me they were going to start an ‘all natural green burial park,’ it really blew my mind!” Patterson tells Pittsburgh City Paper. “I said, ‘You can do that?’”
Like Gengler and Weinberg, Patterson now has her own plot, and believes the decision aligns with her environmental “hippie” values. She and her husband reserved their plots a few years ago, but they have yet to choose a location. They plan on exploring their options while hiking through Penn Forest this summer. “Of course, I probably want to be close to Returning Home Farm, an extension of the burial park, because that’s where the goats and other farm animals live. But we’re going to be side by side, so we’ll have that discussion. There are so many beautiful areas in the park, any place would be lovely.”
“They give an option to make payments, which made it easy and affordable,” says Patterson, adding that, unlike traditional burial, Penn Forest also allows you to be buried with pets, something she plans to do with the remains of her two dogs.
The lack of convention extends to the people running the grounds, neither of whom have a background in mortuary or funeral services. Faessel, who trained with McQuillin to take over the grounds before he retired in 2021, earned a degree in the culinary arts and previously worked in a natural and organic food warehouse in Saxonburg. While earning a degree in environmental science, she did a research project comparing different burial methods and learned about Penn Forest. After graduating, she sent them her resume, and, not long after, received a call from McQuillin.
St. Clair, who has a background in photography, says she always loved cemeteries and wanted a job where she could work outside. She was working at Elmer’s Aquarium in Monroeville, where, in early 2020, Chubb and McQuillin walked in to purchase some fish.
“Pete had his Penn Forest jacket on with the logo and I knew about the place,” St. Clair says, adding that, after giving him her phone number and expressing interest in working there, was granted an interview.
Even as the concept of green burial has expanded, it still remains obscure to many. Patterson says that anyone curious about it should book a tour at Penn Forest, where they can learn to appreciate all it has to offer.
“Once they see the beautiful grounds with its hiking trails, flower gardens, meditation hut, and the reforesting efforts, they’ll get a better picture of how a natural burial can be tailored to their own needs,” she adds. “It’s more economic and eco-friendly than a traditional burial. The staff is friendly and warm. Or, they should visit some of the many nature walks, solstice celebrations, and other activities they host.”
While some may balk at the idea of acting as pallbearers for strangers or filling in graves with dirt, Faessel says it’s all part of a profession that she has come to cherish.
“It’s just such a great place to work,” says Faessel. “I love my job so much. I just really feel like I’m doing something good for the environment and people.”
Penn Forest Natural Burial Park. 121 Colorado St., Verona. pennforestcemetery.com