Elizabeth Fournier was 8 years old when her mother died.
She found visiting with her body, at Young’s Funeral Home in Tigard, to be soothing.
“I felt OK there,” says Fournier, now 45. “I wanted to go back the next night of visitation to see her. I wasn’t scared. Something was nice about it.”
Life went on. Her father quickly remarried. Her last grandparent stepped in to help, then he died in turn. Meanwhile, Fournier nurtured that comfort she felt in the presence of the dead. In grade school, she walked cemeteries near her home in Beaverton.
“And then when I got to high school and could drive a car, I would do that Harold and Maude thing and go to people’s funerals I didn’t know,” says Fournier, sitting in the front room of Cornerstone, the funeral home she owns in Boring, Oregon. She started with funerals at Tigard’s St. Anthony, but soon branched out. Wearing a black dress and sitting in the last pew, Fournier would see how fragile the living were in the wake of death, how much they needed support. When she graduated from high school, she told her father she wanted to go to mortuary school.
“That’s not a good idea,” Fournier recalls her father saying. “You’re probably going to change your mind because you’re only 18 years old. Plus you’ll probably never get a date because it’s creepy!”
Her father was wrong about the dates. Fournier is married, with a 6-year-old daughter. She is also working in the funeral business, and working to change it.
The $15-billion-a-year death-care industry in America has bloated into a financially onerous, emotionally fraught, sometimes ethically problematic operation: pumping our dead full of toxic chemicals, selling us expensive caskets, and sending off our departed in unfamiliar rooms replete with organ music and fake marble. Fournier willingly offers services as grand and complex as families want. She also identifies with what is sometimes called the “alternative death” or “natural burial” movement, one shifting the responsibility of caring for the dead back to families, and in greener, cheaper, arguably more sensible directions. Taking care of our own, she believes, is good for both our wallets and our souls.
“People aren’t aware that when your loved one dies, you have options,” she says. “The first thing they’ll say at a hospital is, what mortuary are you going to use? And there’s that sense that, I guess I need to pick out a funeral home because someone needs to come and pick up this person...Now, people are realizing, ‘Hey! We can take this into our own hands.’ They can be present with it, and that aids your healing, a lot.”
Fournier’s father may have been wrong about her life’s path, but he was half-right about her changing her mind. She’s had many jobs, often with an emphasis on the theatrical. She worked as a ballroom dance teacher, played “Tough Looking Woman” on the TV series Grimm, and has done voiceover work for 25 years, ever since a radio DJ told her she had a great voice (which she does: all throat and honey, Brenda Vaccaro without the scratch). Still, the funeral business stayed on her mind. But what did it mean to be a mortician? She did not consider herself “a black suit kind of girl”; she was young and “kind of kooky.”
Between her junior and senior years at Linfield College, she took a job as the on-site caretaker at Sunset Hills Memorial Park in Southwest Portland. She thought it might be fun to live in a trailer in the middle of the cemetery. It was not.
“Scariest summer of my life,” she says, recalling being frightened not by the dead but by the living, who partied on the graves, peered into her trailer, and prank-called at midnight, saying, “I’m locked inside the cemetery and I need you to get me out!”
“I was 22 years old with long blond hair,” she says, with a shrug that suggests she might have expected to be seen as a curiosity. What Fournier did not expect was a different sort of contact.
“I would get someone calling in the middle of the night, saying, ‘My brother’s [interred] there; I need to know he’s OK,’” she says. “I’d spend an hour on the phone with this person. I realized I do have some of these skills. I can talk to these people. Maybe this is more than just being there with a big car at a funeral at a church and handing out folders. What it really is about is comforting these people.”
She honed the capacity for which she felt destined and became a licensed funeral director first in California, then in Oregon, before buying Cornerstone from its aging owner in 2005. If Fournier is the consoling professional bereaved families need, there is also the sense—as she mentions her appearance on Grimm or that she was once fired from a DJ gig for playing “You Light Up My Life” one too many times—that at any moment that big voice of hers might break into a show tune.