Taking green living to the great beyond. Sign at Penn Forest Natural Burial
Taking green living to the great beyond. Sign at Penn Forest Natural Burial Park.

In January 2008, Pete McQuillin and his wife, Nancy Chubb, were making their bucket list for the year. “You know, one thing I always wanted to do was find out about green burials,” he said to her. When they looked into it, the closest green cemetery they could find was in Ithaca, N.Y.

Peter McQuillin.

“Somebody should start one around here,” he said. Her retort? “Well, what are you doing?”

At the time, McQuillin was 60 years old and had been looking for a new business venture. Chubb had advised, “do something that you really love so that you’re happy.”

A few years later, in 2011, Penn Forest Natural Burial Park was born. Located on 36 acres in Verona, it’s the only green cemetery in the state. There are no manicured lawns or rows of headstones— instead, burial areas are set in the woods. McQuillin and Chubb worked with naturalists to plant native grasses, wildflowers and more trees. Trails meander through the woods and meadows and one-third of the land is set aside as a nature preserve.

“We had no experience in making a cemetery,” he says. “We were not qualified, but we learned as we went and have built a wonderful place.”

People who are into green burials pass on tradition—they want a no-funeral funeral, he says. Green burials use a biodegradable coffin—like wicker or paper—and shrouds. The interred are buried in wool or cotton. Only native stone or wood markers are used to mark their resting spot in the forest.

“We’ll do whatever people want as long as it’s legal,” he says with a laugh. One woman said, “throw me in a burlap sack and bury me in the woods.” He said, “I’ll do that.”

Cairn found in the cremation scattering area.

A typical burial includes formaldehyde embalming fluid, concrete burial vaults, steel caskets and includes perpetual maintenance at the cemetery. Cremation “uses a huge amount of energy and pollutes the air,” says McQuillin. “A green burial is the third option.”

If you are interested in learning more, visit their 5th annual open house and picnic on June 13 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Lonesome Lost and Foggy bluegrass band will perform and musician Brenda Jean Searcy will debut her green burial song, “I want to be a tree.” The East End Food Co-op will provide the food, Nine Mile Run Watershed Association will discuss rain barrels and greenSinner Floral and Garden will demonstrate floral arranging that uses local and sustainable flowers and greens. McQuillin and local landscape designer Kathy Raborn will give a talk called Monarchs, Meadows and Milkweed.

Bring blankets, lawn chairs, your kids, a covered dish to share, musical instruments—and hiking boots to explore the trails. Leashed pets are welcome. RSVP here.

“One of our focuses this year is that we’re going to start using goats to clear brush on our property. We try to do everything in a sustainable way, he says. “We just went off to goat school up in Maine.”

One of the burial areas. Courtesy Penn Forest Natural Burial Park.
One of the burial areas. Courtesy Penn Forest Natural Burial Park.

There are 1,400 burial lots laid out, and Penn Forest has the capacity for 15,000 lots.

Penn Forest has sold 140 lots—and interred 21 so far—but traffic on their website has tripled over the past year. “It’s happening,” says McQuillin. “It’s amazing how it’s grown. “We’ve created a lot of good feeling and met a lot of good people. It’s been a wonderful trip—and it’s just more fun as it goes.”

Woods wanderer who was an an editor at New England’s regional magazine, the research director of a Colorado newspaper and a farm hand in Vermont before returning to Pittsburgh to write about and explore her hometown.