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Virginia's First Green Cemetery

The National Funeral Directors Association reports a typical viewing and burial can cost more than $7,000 on average, and that doesn’t count the price of a spot in the cemetery.  That’s one factor feeding a growing trend toward cremation and natural burials. 

Duck Run Natural Cemetery is about six miles southeast of Harrisonburg, on a farm road suitably named Windswept Lane.   When this 113-acre site came up for sale, Kenny Kyger had an idea.  His family owned funeral homes, and some customers were unhappy with the usual products on offer.

“They didn’t want vaults," says Glenn Jennelle, the cemetery's manager. "They didn’t want caskets.  They didn’t want headstones.  They just wanted plain, simple back to nature.”

In 2011, he and Kyger began clearing the land, enlarging a pond for catch and release fishing, building a shelter and a bridge over the creek known as Duck Run.

It was 25 years since the land was grazed by dairy cows, and Jennelle’s crew couldn’t use chemicals to kill weeds.  Over a two-year period they worked with hand tools to manicure the land – complying with guidelines issued by the Green Burial Council.

Today the property is covered by grass, wildflowers and trees native to the Shenandoah Valley.

“From where we’re standing now you can actually see the Blue Ridge Mountains," says Jennelle. "The Massanutten Mountains, the Allegheny Mountains -- t’s absolutely beautiful.”

People buried here arrive in bio-degradable wooden caskets or wrapped in a simple cloth shroud.

“I’d say 75-80% of people we have interred here are in body shrouds,” he adds.

Bodies are embalmed with natural fluids or not at all, and the caskets contain no metal.  That’s important because each year the United States buries enough steel to build the Golden Gate Bridge and puts 827,000 gallons of toxic embalming chemicals in the ground.

Other burial grounds like the Eco-Eternity Memorial Forest  near Williamsburg will only accept cremated remains – an increasingly popular choice in this country.  In 1975 only six percent of America’s dead were cremated.  Today more than a third of us choose that option, and the Cremation Association of North America says it’ll be more than half by 2025.

No problem, says Glenn Jennelle.

“We have scattering gardens – wildflowers growing in the spring and summer.”

The cost – just $250 – compared with the price to bury a body -- $3,700 bucks.  You may also want an urn to transport cremains, but that’s easy enough.   Online Wal-mart offers 25 pages of urns, boxes and lockets for storing ash.

To keep costs down and confirm a commitment to recycling, you can also choose a site in the cemetery’s so-called renewable section. 

An old dairy barn greets visitors to Duck Run.

“After 75 years the grave can actually be re-used.  This is a thing they do over in the UK, due to lack of land. The body’s 85% water, and when that’s gone you only have 15% left and the earth kind of takes care of that.”

Customers can choose the location of their grave, and when the time comes, provide their own service.  Jennelle says he’s seen all kinds. “The gentleman was a Civil War re-enactor. They actually brought the canon from his canon brigade.  Everybody was dressed in full uniform and the end of the ceremony they fired the canon off -- just an awesome way to send somebody out.”

He adds that scout troops have camped at the cemetery, and visitors are welcome to picnic, fish, read or stroll -- to in general celebrate life.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief