The Elizabeth Fournier Interview

I reviewed the audiobook version of Julie Powell's book Cleaving for EMusic and ranked "30 Rock's" Jack Donaghy's girlfriends for Finally if you want to read about my favorite bad-ass, check out the AV Club here.

Today I interview a person who I think is an example of why it's not rude to ask a person what he or she does for a living. You're at a boring party, you meet someone who says she's from a town called Boring, OR. You ask her what she does and she tells you she's a mortician and a dance instructor on the side, and also she is a published author too. BO-RING. Anyway, Elizabeth Fournier is obviously interesting in and of her own right but now she is also at the forefront of green burials. It was not hard to come up with questions to ask her.

Either in film, books, or fine art, what have been some of your favorite artistic renderings of death?
I absolutely love the dramatic moment on a lonely highway in New Mexico which was snapped by Ansel Adams in 1941. "Moonrise, Hernandez" perfectly captures the luminance of moon. I pulled into a 7-11 in San Jose, California about ten years back and was approached by two young men selling prints out of the back of a car. Prices were excellent so I took a gander. I immediate spotted it -- the white clouds, the moon in a black sky, and especially the sea of white gravestones.

It currently is watching over me as I work in my parlour office. I have learned that Mr. Adams was driving down Highway 285 later one afternoon and suddenly slammed the breaks on his old Pontiac station wagon to get the shot. It was in the moment, just like my purchase at 7-11 that day.

What have been some of the on-the-job goings-on that you've gotten used to that the average person would find creepy? Other than hanging out with dead people.

Many years ago I was vacuuming in the slumber room and backed into the decedent lying in that room. She wasn't in a casket, but on her personal couch since that was the family's preference. The family had taken about ten days to decide on arrangements, so she wasn't in the best condition. The funeral directors tried to help her deteriorated state by strategically positioning her on the couch, but I just happened to bump her at her weakest link. My vacuuming was cut short due to the fact part of her arm landed in my path. My brother loves that story!

Do you listen to music/podcasts while you work? What do you prefer?
Sunny 1550 AM. I adore stations which tout "the music of your life." Tony Bennett has always been my imaginary boyfriend, and whenever I have to deal with something unpleasant, I am mentally cruising down Pacific Coast Highway on a sunny day in a light-blue Ford Fairlane with the top down, singing loudly to all my favorite show tunes played by Ken Denko and his Hammond B3 in my back seat.

What have been some of the most unusual requests you've received from clients or families of clients?
I've decorated fingernails to resemble the Ten Commandments, made sure a casket was painted Fire Engine red for a former fire chief, and organized a small-top circus performance for a funeral.

What do your colleagues in the funeral think of the literary direction you've taken your career?

I had a book signing when it was first released at the Chapel Pub in Portland, Oregon, which is an old funeral home turned into a bar and restaurant. Many death care industry colleagues came out and stood in line for an autographed book. I was more than touched.

When it comes to green burials, who are your most interested clients at this point--are you able to see any trends in terms of age, income, lifestyle, etc?

Embracing and driving the green burial movement are the Baby Boomers. Those 78 million Americans born in the two decades following the end of World War II ushered in the first Earth Day and natural childbirth; they wrote their own wedding vows and nurtured the organic food revolution. This is the age demographic calling me to chat, request information, and in fact, choose green burial.

What's been the nicest memorial you've attended lately? What made it special?
Wanda's service pops right to mind. Her friends and family played drums, chanted and spoke of her kindness. We all held hands to form a circle around her newly dug resting place, and stood in silence as her three sons lowered her gently into the ground. Her tiny frame was cloaked with a quilt she had made as a teenager. Soon the plain grave was covered with earth, with a knoll of dirt on top to compensate for settling that will happen over time. There was no marker, just native foliage. After a closing prayer we feasted on fish caught in the local Clackamas River.

This beautiful experience opened my eyes to the fact that burying loved ones at home can help people through the grieving process by adding an immense amount of joy in caring the body of their loved one on their terms. This intimate time for the family allows privacy in saying goodbye, and also provides a convenient place to visit their beloved.

What are some elements you'd love to see included (or hate) in your own memorial service?
I want my loved ones to do anything that makes them feel full of peace. And maybe have Amazing Grace played on the bagpipes!

Careerwise, what do you think you'd be doing if you weren't a mortician (or writer or dancer)?

My childhood fantasy was to be a Solid Gold Dancer, but that dream is now up in smoke with the dissolve of the program, and possibly some of my technique. I have always had a hankering for topography. We are all map nerds in my family,

What's the hardest dance to teach, and is it also the hardest dance to learn?

Tango is earthy and dramatic. Tango movements have a "stalking" or "sneaking" character, are unlike the walks of other ballroom dances. Movements are sometimes slow and slithery, and other times sharp and staccato, such as a quick foot flick or a sharp head snap to promenade position. Tango has the same counter clockwise flow of movement around the dance floor, but with a lesser sense of urgency in comparison to the smoother and more continuous ballroom dances.

Dancing tango consists primarily of walking progressing in a line of dance around the dance floor, with the walk interrupted with stops and turns and changes of direction, all the time connecting one's movements to the rhythm of the music. Although there are a few small sequences of 'steps' that students learn when they start tango, as they advance their dance becomes more improvisational, with a turn or change in direction possible at every step, i.e., their dance progresses towards greater creativity in using small dance elements, i.e., improvisation, instead of moving towards complex memorized figures.

And explaining how dancing works in the real world is tricky with this dance. Practicing in a controlled environment, such as a classroom or empty ballroom, doesn't always bring aspects like floor craft and etiquette into play.

Are you working on other book projects? On what subjects?

Yes. I am working with a management team to move All Men Are Cremated Equal: My 77 Blind Dates into script form for film development, and I am writing my second manuscript which is a continuum of my prior book. I have now married and live with my family in Boring, Oregon where we own and run the funeral home.

So, Halloween haunted house-wise, how much do eyeballs really feel like peeled grapes?
Ha! I know nothing of that arena. My last haunted house visit was as a child. The Enchanted Forest outside of Salem, Oregon still spooks me as I drive by. The old, spooky house can barely be seen through the tree line, but I know it is there, waiting to scare the pants off me.

Incidentally, one of the most well-known exhibits in the park is the Witch's Head. Kids enter through the witch's mouth, and inside is a little scene with the witch preparing a poisoned apple for Snow White. Once petrified, children can exit down a slide in the witch's hair.

How did the town of Boring get its name?
It's a rather boring story. The community was named after W. H. Boring, an early resident of the area. Boring was platted in 1903 as "Boring Junction". The post office was established and named "Boring" the same year, and the builders of the interurban railway adopted Boring as the name of the community.

I do love the jokes. I never get tired of the funny looks, the caller on the other end of the line asking me to repeat myself, or late-night TV making fun of it.

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