Back in 2008, Pete McQuillin and his wife Nancy Chubb had a conversation familiar to many of us. They discussed their end of life wishes, speaking candidly about their desires for a simple return to the Earth -- a green burial. Neither of them realized it at the time, but in expressing this desire, they tipped the first domino toward creating a community that forever changed the green burial landscape.
Pete died unexpectedly on January 8th, 2022 and his burial matched his original desires exactly. This comes as no surprise, seeing as he dedicated the last 14 years of his life to building and operating Penn Forest Natural Burial Park, Western Pennsylvania’s first and only exclusively green cemetery, certified by the Green Burial Council.
“Pete’s death has made me reflect a lot, especially on that initial conversation” said Nancy on a snowy January day, nearly a week after Pete’s burial. “When we had that talk, it set the course for the rest of his life. We were burying him in this cemetery that didn’t exist yet.”
In the years that followed their 2008 conversation, Pete and Nancy and members of the Pittsburgh community banded together to build the foundation for Penn Forest Natural Burial Park. They started out by establishing interest through their nonprofit, Green Burial Pittsburgh, hosting group meetings and helping to educate the community on natural burial options. Nancy recalled how, early on, they received a $100 donation from a name they didn’t recognize. “We knew we were onto something, when we got that donation from a stranger,” she laughed. Once they decided there was sufficient interest (along with the knowledge that the closest green burial ground to Pittsburgh was in Ithaca, NY), they decided to start looking for the right piece of property.
As with so many chapters of the Penn Forest story, the confluence of events that led to their finding the 26 acres in Penn Hills that became the cemetery exemplified the ethos of Penn Forest: equal parts kismet, community, and determination. Nancy recalled the early days of Penn Forest with a fond nostalgia. What started as a simple mission to create a green cemetery turned into so much more: a way to honor their legacy as land conservationists and a labor of love as environmentalists.
“I like to think of Pete kind of like the pied piper,” said Jeff Hodes, close friend of the family and board member of the Green Burial Council. “He would play his flute and people would gather around him to support his mission.” Jeff, who was involved with the project from the beginning, helped out during his time off from managing two other local cemeteries and eventually helped Pete with the cemetery’s startup operations. Speaking with me shortly after Pete’s death, he recalled with excitement the day he and Pete walked to the P.O. box to receive the certificate from the real estate commission that allowed Pete and Nancy to open the cemetery. That hard-fought victory was one of many that Jeff recognizes were won because of Pete’s collaborative spirit.
Pete had a magnetism about him that was, as Nancy said, “as organic and healing as the place we were creating.” This might have been part of the reason that Laura Faessel found herself working at Penn Forest about four and a half years ago. What started as a 10-hour-per-week gig turned into a full-time commitment as Laura became Pete’s right hand at the cemetery, and eventually part of the succession plan for Penn Forest.
“Pete asked me if I wanted to take over managing the cemetery when he retired and started teaching me how to do everything,” said Laura, mentioning that they did not expect this change to happen so soon. She expressed her gratitude for Pete’s foresight, and for his desire to share his knowledge with her.
It makes sense that someone who runs a cemetery would think long-term, about a future that exists without them. Pete did that with Laura, and eventually Maria St. Clair, the assistant manager who was hired in 2020. Right before our conversation came to a close, Laura said that she and Maria are “so fortunate, so lucky, to have met Pete and Nancy. They saw something in us, the strong women that we are, and gave us this opportunity.”
It occurs to me as I write this piece that I would have loved to talk to Pete about this, to hear these stories in his own words. I imagine he would be humble and approach the topic with the levity and wisdom that comes with experience and passion. Then I remember, I did get a chance to talk to Pete. Two years ago, I moved to Pittsburgh and reached out to Penn Forest with a cold email inquiring about the local green burial scene. Pete called me right away and cheerily explained that it was his daughter’s wedding weekend and he was a bit busy, but told me to write down Laura’s number, that she could help me. In that short conversation, he’d shown me so many of the true characteristics I’d come to learn about from those who knew him best after he was gone: he was a willing and humble mentor and connector. He was kind, generous, and had the keen ability to help people find their place in the world.
The Green Burial Council is grateful to have been a part of the community that Pete played a role in building. His presence will be missed, but his legacy will live on in our shared vision for more green burial options for more people. Thank you, Pete, for all you gave to this community.
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