Compassion. Kindness is highly underrated. Treat everyone well, including yourself. Speak to yourself as you would a dear friend. You would be kind, right? Know that everyone has value. Last year Reader’s Digest wrote an article called, “The Nicest Places in Every State.” I was blown away (and so very honored!) that my state of Oregon had my town of Boring listed as the nicest place because I was known for my compassion. Wow! I had no idea that my inherent value of always being kind would be recognized that publicly.
Elizabeth Fournier began her career in 1990 in Portland, where she was employed as the live-in night keeper, sleeping in a trailer in the cemetery at Finley-Sunset Hills Memorial Park. Nearly 30 years later, she is a one-woman funeral service in the rural town of Boring, Oregon. Elizabeth owns and operates Cornerstone Funeral Services where she is affectionately known as “The Green Reaper” for her green burial advocacy. She is also the Manager of Historic Columbian Cemetery, Portland’s newest green burial choice. Elizabeth is the author of The Green Burial Guidebook: Everything You Need to Plan an Affordable, Environmentally Friendly Burial. She serves on the Advisory Board of the Green Burial Council and is a member of their speaker’s bureau. She recently gave a TEDx talk called, “Going Green: The Last Act of Environmental Volunteerism.” People Magazine wrote, “Elizabeth Fournier is doing her part to change the way Americans bury their dead.”
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
I am a mortician because it is my calling. Dealing with death was natural for me. My mother died when I was eight; both of my grandparents who lived with us also died. I was a little girl with a grieving father and a brother who would not talk much anymore. I took it upon myself to become a source of strength for my family. But it didn’t stop there. At my tiny Catholic school, where most students lived with both parents, I stood out. Everyone knew my family spent more time in caskets rather than not, and everyone knew that when they suffered the loss of a family member or even a pet, I was the one to go to. It seemed I was the only death source in that community. When I got into junior high, when a parent or sibling would die, anyone, really, I would be the person they would go to. Everybody looked at me as their go-to girl for death.
Since the age of 13, I knew I wanted to work in the funeral industry. So when I finally found the courage to confess this secret wish to my dad, he paused and said, “Not only is mortuary science a very narrow career field, but… you probably won’t be able to get a date to save your life.”
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?
I am known as The Green Reaper, a name I have affectionately been given as the green burial funeral director, educator and advocate who is always ready to lend a hand, or a shovel. I have even written two books about it. I now own a thriving funeral home in the country — I am the Undertaker of Boring, Oregon, and I hope to hold off on any increase of my prices for as long as possible because I love the idea of an almost non-profit funeral home to serve the public, and to give back.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Yet about ten years back, my calling as an undertaker took on new meaning. My funeral parlor phone rang, and a woman asked if I could meet her and some friends at their favorite pub to discuss funeral arrangements for a woman named Wanda, who had just died. Wanda’s friends were a close-knit group of gentle people. While filling out the death certificate, they were stumped as to why they weren’t allowed to list Wanda’s occupation as “Wanderer” and her industry as “the Earth.” After all, that was how Wanda saw herself.
Her friends came to see me because they felt they could only accurately honor Wanda the Wanderer by laying her to rest on the fifteen country acres where she lived in community with others, but they weren’t sure how to go about doing that. In fact, I wasn’t certain this was legal, so I made some calls. The local zoning department confirmed that private land burials were allowed in Wanda’s county, and they explained the regulations to me. I was stunned to find all this out…and excited. So, I lined up a backhoe, and by the next day, we were ready for the fitting ceremony.
Wanda had walked a green life, and now we would help her walk a green death. The service was top-drawer, almost like the kind of party Wanda would have created if she were alive. 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 earth. Her tiny frame was cloaked with a quilt she had made as a teenager. Soon, the plain grave was covered with soil. We left a raised knoll of dirt on top to compensate for the settling that would happen over time.
We didn’t use a grave marker, just native foliage. After a closing prayer, we feasted on fish caught down the way in the Clackamas River. The following day, the family called to share their collective consciousness that Wanda wasn’t isolated in her grave space. She had become one with the bionetwork that supported every plant and creature, and as she rested eternally in nature’s embrace, life would now surround her.
Wanda’s family and friends conducted her funeral in their own way, and I could see how much comfort it gave them to be able to stay with her and take care of her body themselves. They were with her the whole process: from the time she died until the time she was buried. It was like in the old days, but I felt as if I had discovered something new. For once I didn’t have the nagging feeling that the whole experience of burial was falling short for the mourners. I felt I’d been true to my calling as a funeral director to help a loving group of family and friends get what they needed from their send-off. I then turned my attention towards these constructing a solid ministry of advocacy for natural death practices. Burial is the last thing you can do for someone, all of which makes green burial positively down-to-earth and uplifting.
Soon after Wanda’s service, callers would phone my funeral home and ask if I they found “the funeral home that has the woman that does the green burials.” I found people wanted to honor their loved ones with a dignified burial by physically assisting in the process and giving back to nature. In turn, everyone involved held space for a journey as natural as the life in the surrounding forest of wild ferns, squirrels, and birds. My life of directing funerals and burials was transitioning into something soft and kind, beautiful and green, rich and dignified.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define what a ‘Thought Leader’ is. How is a thought leader different than a typical leader? How is a thought leader different than an influencer?
Thought leaders could be described as people who are able to dream while asleep as well as while they are awake. Sometimes dreams can mean you are on the path to discovering the future and what the future can be. A thought leader has faith in themselves, their path, and what lies ahead.
We are all leaders to some degree, but a thought leader is a little more prepared to meet their fate.
I define an influencer as more of an opinion marketer, while a thought leader has proven knowledge. I would say akin to a visionary.
Can you talk to our readers a bit about the benefits of becoming a thought leader? Why do you think it is worthwhile to invest resources and energy into this?
Throughout history, the catalyst for transformation has always began with individuals who foresaw the benefit of being a visionary. These thought leaders help encourage employees, new invention innovation, greater revenue streams, amplified sales, better market effectiveness, resilient structural culture, etc. A positive future is always worth the investment.They are positive energizers.Since thought leaders are ardent about and connected with their goals, their optimistic energy is infectious. They rejuvenate people with encouraging dynamism.
Let’s talk about business opportunities specifically. Can you share a few examples of how thought leadership can help a business grow or create lucrative opportunities?
I have always enjoyed classes, lectures, books, workshops, conversations, meetings, television, and all interactions. Why? Because there is always something new to discover, to learn, to improve upon. We are never done accumulating wisdom and knowledge. It’s rather miraculous to think that we can never stop intellectually growing. Keep learning about your industry. Get excited about continuing education. Embrace the new developments in your marketplace.
Share… and listen. Sharing your vision supports your vision. As you express your leadership vision to others, you will fortify your own belief in your vision and reinforce your resolve to make your leadership idea come to be. But now that you have shared, you must listen. After all, if you’re a thought leader, pretty good chance you find yourself in the company of other thought leaders.
Ok. Now that we have that behind us, we’d love to hear your thoughts about how to eventually become a thought leader. Can you share 5 strategies that a person should implement to become known as a thought leader in their industry. Please tell us a story or example (ideally from your own experience) for each.
- Compassion. Kindness is highly underrated. Treat everyone well, including yourself. Speak to yourself as you would a dear friend. You would be kind, right? Know that everyone has value. Last year Reader’s Digest wrote an article called, “The Nicest Places in Every State.” I was blown away (and so very honored!) that my state of Oregon had my town of Boring listed as the nicest place because I was known for my compassion. Wow! I had no idea that my inherent value of always being kind would be recognized that publicly.
- Upcycle. I created dryer lint urns as an Earth Day initiative. Out came the beautifully hued lint from the dryer trap when my little daughter, Sofia’s pastel clothing was dry. I knew dryer dregs could be turned into something worthy. Biodegradable lint is obviously very reasonably priced so this can take some of the stress off the family who already has to endure a loss on top of many dollars for a funeral. Pass that Earth forward!
- Dare. I co-founded the Labor Coalition for Environmental Responsibility when I was in college. Rather than drinking myself silly at fraternity parties, I knew early on that I actually wanted to be somebody distinct in the crowd. Dare to find something that needs to done and then just do it.
- Mantra. I have special words to help me truly achieve my mission on this earth. Good intentions change the world, right? According to my experience, I create happy sound energy while I build my own mantra which I find becomes more comfortable than any other popular mantras. For each of us, there is a unique mantra that you can connect to. Find out your own rhythm. It can be a prayer, a sacred song, or just meaningful words.
- Love. The most important word of all. Everything in the world is an act of love or an act from someone or something that needs love. Love is truly all that matters.
In your opinion, who is an example of someone who has that has done a fantastic job as a thought leader? Which specific things have impressed you about that person? What lessons can we learn from this person’s approach.
My mother was a thought leader, and the best kind. I present kindly lessons which were, in some form, taught to me through my own mother’s love.
Walk in Compassion: Compassion is defined as “deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it.” It’s more than just that–Compassion is an attitude, a philosophy, a way of life, and sustainability is rooted in the basic compassion of being kind to others; a gift that keeps giving. I was taught to not hit, bite or call others names. Sharing earned a gold star because we all had more than we needed. Good things should be shared with everyone, especially if these good things can change at least one person’s life.
Breathe in Nature: Children are born with a sense of wonder and an affinity for nature. Properly cultivated, these values can mature into ecological literacy and eventually into sustainable patterns of living. My mother was inspired by Anne Frank, and in turn passed that gift to me. This was a passage written by Anne in her diary: “The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet, alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature.”
Visualize the Future: My mother knew we needed to cut the meat habit for a more sustainable outlook, and that worked out just fine since it was already a built-in eco-trait of being Catholic–Sunday was pasta night. Momma was a fan of adding artificial bacon-flavored bits to give pasta more zing. Sofia and I turn off the faucets when brushing our teeth, rather than watching nearly 10 gallons of water slide down the drain, and there is no way we would leave the car running while waiting for someone. We turn down the heat; only wash full loads of laundry; set the freezer temps exactly between 0 and 5 degrees; always lather and rinse just once.
The most important way my mother taught me to visualize the future? Always say your prayers before you go to bed. No one gets out of here alive.
I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?
I prefer visionary. Or how about fearless dreamer?
What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?
I have a secret weapon that helps my creative business mind flourish as I maneuver and strategize towards my next phase. I spend a good chunk of my time out in country graveyards. These burial grounds are way out in the middle of nature. I always show up before a family arrives for the service of their loved one. I like to spend that quality time walking the land while my mind processes everything.
Time hangs lightly and solitude allows me time to gaze at ivy and grass and take in the nature surrounding me. Flowers glisten with last evening’s rain. In this place, as in all, the dead are granted a little space. This privacy is exactly what feeds my creativity. As I sit or walk alone, shade splashes silently around me and I am free to talk out loud and mentally work through the needs of all the families that will be coming through my doors.
Find your happy place, your garden of peace, or island of pleasure. Go there and give back to you.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I have these words pinned as the post at the top of my Twitter feed:
Want to up your personal happiness? Say kind things to the next person you see. It’s even more fun if that person is a total stranger.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Stay in your own lane. My husband was really into “Celebrity Apprentice” and I decided to watch it with him one season. Television personality Leeza Gibbons was one of the contestants and during an interview on the show she said, “Mom always told me to stay in my lane and focus on my own race. That’s what I tried to do.” Right in that moment I was convinced she would be the winner. And she was.
Stay in your lane reminds me daily that I need to move forward at my own pace, and not be concerned what is happening in the lane next to me, or the lane 10 lanes away. I am doing fine, and I am right on schedule. Always.
We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Richard Simmons used to call between 50 and 100 overweight people to give them that extra boost of confidence they needed to lose weight. Thousands of people would e-mail him and share their stories; people would write him everything about their lives. And all that sweet, darling man with the merrily frizzled hair wanted to do was make them laugh, make them sing and get them motivated. I have so much love for this bedazzled tank-top wearer who has said the top right Hollywood Square “feels like home.”
The first thing I came to admire of Mr. Richard Simmons was his lack of worrisomeness. This is his brilliant philosophy: He sets his kitchen timer for five minutes every morning, allows himself just five minutes to sit and mind chatter about life stuff, and then is on with his day.
A little back story about the one person I’d like to meet: Richard was a little, afroed Caucasian kid born without certain bones in his feet. He was 200 pounds when he was in the 8th grade…a compulsive eater. He overcame his issues and dedicated his life to loving others. My kind of thought leading hero!
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