No one will mistake Cornerstone for a corporate funeral home. The building is a former goat barn. The only caskets on display are made of wicker and pine. And where one might expect a show of solemnity, there is a pencil portrait of Clint Eastwood over Fournier’s desk.
“If you’re expecting marble and stately columns, you probably wouldn’t be here,” says Fournier. “We are definitely in the hillbilly spectrum, and that is just fine.”
The hillbilly appellation is a stretch for Fournier, a self-described “city girl” who keeps her blond hair long, has enviable cheekbones, and flashes a little something of Meryl Streep in the trailer for Green Reaper, a reality show she pitched to a Los Angeles production company. In it, she and husband Michael Potts (a certified cremator) wrestle a tarp-wrapped corpse down a staircase. (“I’ve pitched it to multiple networks—they’re very favorable on it,” said producer Darryl Silver, reached in his car by Apalachicola Bay, where he was purusing a series about alligators in the Florida swamps.)
Fournier’s willingness to take center stage—in addition to her television and radio work she is the author of All Men Are Cremated Equal: My 77 Blind Dates, a memoir about her search for a husband while working as a mortician—might be seen as a love of the limelight. It might better be seen as a willingness to be a beacon in dark days. It helps to have a big personality around, letting people know things are going to be OK, that Fournier will take charge and ease your way.
Also easing: Cornerstone’s prices, which are reasonable, even altruistic. Services for children under age 8, for instance, are free. Paid packages start at $595 (for direct cremation, which Fournier outsources to a company in Northeast Portland). They top out at $1,850, for a burial-funeral package with no hidden costs.
“For green burial, I just charge $795,” she says. “I’m there with you when the passing happens, we wash, we bathe, we shroud, we do the ice, all the paperwork, we transport your loved one to the cemetery: $795.” (Fournier’s prices do not include the cost of the cemetery plot, which can add thousands of dollars even for green burial, which not all cemeteries accommodate.)
Fournier does, she says, occasionally need to rein in people’s DIY enthusiasms, to explain the difference between green burial and composting. “People say, just leave me at my house and then, we can go ahead and bring Mom out in the backyard. Yeah...but Mom probably doesn’t want to be carried out naked. Also, the person who’s putting dirt on her probably doesn’t want to see Mom’s face. So we have to walk people through all those steps.”
Delivering practical advice, working out logistics, keeps Fournier busy; she estimates she deals with 20 deaths a month, ranging from simple cremations to full funerals. While the low rent at Cornerstone allows Fournier to keep services affordable, her refusal to raise prices is a point of contention with her husband. (Potts is seen in the Green Reaper trailer throwing up his hands and telling his wife, “You might as well just give everything away!”) Fournier holds to her convictions. She talks with many people free of charge, people to whom she may not sell a thing but who need something to hang on to when the floor of their world has fallen out. This can be Fournier telling two young children whose mother has just died, “You will be OK, you will get through this—I was just where you were.” When Fournier’s daughter was an infant, services sometimes included simply allowing the grief-stricken to hold her.
“Her name is Sofia, after (the widowed) St. Sofia. That was purposeful,” says Fournier. “People would actually come and knock on the door and say, ‘Is your baby here?’ I would have her in my advertising. People would hold her, and it was such a comfort. It’s the circle of life and death.”
It’s 10 a.m. on a sunny Saturday, and Fournier is on the phone: a family had a death three days earlier, and they are unhappy with the funeral home they’re dealing with in Gresham. Can Fournier step in? She assures the family she can.
She does not tell them she is currently standing in the parking lot of Maranatha Church in Northeast Portland, where a “Homegoing Celebration” for Willie Vera Ranson is set to begin in an hour, with Fournier as the person family members look to for guidance: Is there another guest book? How can they prop up the poster of Grandma? And where, by the way, is Grandma?
Dressed in a latticed black blouse through which peeps a coral camisole, the color matching her toenail polish, Fournier assures Mrs. Ranson’s relatives that the hearse has just pulled up, that “absolutely” they can touch up their late grandmother’s hair, that Fournier will make sure extra programs are saved for the family.
“It’s always pandemonium just before the funeral starts,” she says. “Someone said to me recently, you’re like a wedding planner, but for dead people. I told her, yes, it’s very similar. You’re going to invite the same people, probably have the same music, the same food, the same flowers. The difference is, rather than having a year to plan it, I have four days.”
Fournier helps several elderly women in church hats to their seats, and then she steps outside to take another call, from someone who expects a loved one to die today.
“And how are you doing?” she asks the person. “All you need to do is get by in the moment—and drink some water.”
Two of Fournier’s assistants roll the casket before the altar. They raise the top half of the lid, showing the 87-year-old Mrs. Ranson in repose, in a nest of ivory satin.
“Whenever there is a ‘homegoing,’ there is a viewing beforehand,” says Fournier, of today’s arrangements. The casket is a rental. Mrs. Ranson will be cremated—a nontraditional but growing choice in the African American community, according to Fournier—so there was no reason to have the family purchase one.
The service begins at 11 on the dot. The pastor recites Psalm 23. Sister Willie Ranson is recalled as “altogether lovely.” The gospel singers sing. Emotions rise and converge in a way that brings tears to the throat—Fournier’s, too. She has once more transformed grief into memorial.
“It’s a very healing place,” she says, gazing at the altar.
Her phone vibrates again.