Duck Run Natural Cemetery

Duck Run is for ducks and humans.

photos by Tom Bailey

photos by Tom Bailey

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The 113 acres that hold Duck Run Natural Cemetery are set in prosperous Virginia farmland in the beginnings of the Shenandoah River Valley, overlooked by the Alleghenies, Massanutten Peak, and the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Duck Run is the brain child of Kenny Kyger, owner of Kyger Funeral Home, who approached the Rockingham County Board of Supervisors for permission to open a green burial cemetery after noting a trend in the funeral business. Duck Run is Virginia’s first natural cemetery certified by the Green Burial Council.

Tom and I arrived along with the first guests for a memorial service, and we tried to be discrete in the open landscape. We walked along the edge past bee hives and cornfields to the top of a hill where a bench invited me to take in the breeze and meditate on the view of fallow fields covered in wildflowers beyond the cemetery.

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A path of stones on the slope below the bench memorializes people whose ashes are scattered in the meadows. In the distance the gathering produced sounds of laughter and the glad sight of children running in the sun. People in summer clothes hauled tubs of food from their vehicles.

They gathered on the far shore of Duck Run's central feature--a large pond edged by cattails. Perhaps it was a watering hole for cattle when this was a broken down dairy farm, just old buildings and ruined foundations. Water makes a good rallying point for life--and death.

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We walked to the main buildings through an arbor where new grape vines are being trained. Everything planted here at Duck Run is edible, though sometimes this leads to tussles with the wildlife who also find it appealing.

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At the barn we found ducks gathered outside the front door waiting for Glenn Jennelle, Duck Run's general manager. Maintenance equipment fills the first floor but the loft is a sweet-smelling woodshop where biodegradable caskets suitable for natural burial will be built to sell through the funeral home. Glenn opened the loft doors and showed us how the property runs to the far corners of the corn fields. We peered down at the gathering of ducks.

"I raised them so I guess I'm their mother," Glenn says.

Glenn points out graves which are all but hidden in long grass. Kyger and Jennelle got the license to open a cemetery in 2012 and then spent two years figuring out just what they wanted. They didn't look at other burial grounds for fear of being tempted to copy before putting their own stamp on the place. One of their innovations is to offer both perpetual care lots and renewable lots, which revert back to the cemetery 75 years after burial. 

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Most customers so far have not been locals. They come from Richmond, from Maryland and the coast. The people moving below our vantage point are here for a memorial service for a guy who was buried two weeks ago. It was sad, Glenn said, there were no mourners. He was 51. At least he's getting a party now.

I remark on the river out of sight and Glenn sighs and breaks into my romance of the Shenandoah, taken from memories of the folk song "Oh Shenandoah" which I learned in elementary school. The river, he says, is incredibly polluted. DuPont released heavy metals in the 1930s and 40s from an upstream facility. Cows add to the problem with their manure and by stirring up contaminated sediment when they walk into the water.

Yet the light, the sense of space magnified by the grandeur of the mountains, makes this a place one would want to be buried in.

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Taking perpetuity out of grave rights.

Sign on roadside barn near Duck Run Natural Cemetery.    photo by Tom Bailey

Sign on roadside barn near Duck Run Natural Cemetery.   photo by Tom Bailey

Americans believe in the perpetuity of their graves. Yet cemeteries don't sell plots of land, they sell burial rights. The ownership entity holds the property whether as a private for-profit or nonprofit corporation, a municipality or a religious organization. Since you don't own a plot, this means you have the right to be buried in the space in perpetuity--technically forever. The cemetery can't do anything else with the space, like bury someone new in it. In conventional cemeteries with embalmed bodies in long-lasting hydro-sealed caskets protected by concrete vaults perpetual rights make a certain sense. But for natural burial, which is about getting out of the way of the agents that would turn a human body back to the soil, isn't perpetuity a bit silly?

Granted the most difficult thing to overcome might be Americans' knee-jerk reaction to the idea of disturbing graves, but I decided to look at what is done elsewhere, and what may be underway in this country to change the equation.

The idea of perpetual grave rights originated here and became prevalent as burial moved out of communal churchyards and town burial grounds to cemeteries which sold plots to a general public. In much of the rest of the world, contracts for burial space are more like leases. When a lease is up, in some places you can renew it, in others your exclusive right to the plot ends and the ground can be reused. Remains (bones mostly) are either removed from the grave and placed in an ossuary or the grave dug deeper so that it can hold the bones at the bottom and a new burial above. Grave leases that include the right to erect a memorial will specify what happens to the memorial at the end.

Perpetual care marker at Forest Hill Cemetery, Madison, WI. Photo by Claire S. Bjork

Perpetual care marker at Forest Hill Cemetery, Madison, WI. Photo by Claire S. Bjork

Judging by our predilection for permanence in burial the renewable burial plot is on the cutting edge of afterdeath care options. However, two green burial cemeteries in the US and one in Canada offer graves that can be reused. I was curious what prompted them to go against the grain (out of roughly 135 cemeteries which I surveyed).

For two of them sustainable use of land is the primary reasons for not opting simply for perpetuity. Their arguments are especially poignant in light of one of green burial's most difficult issues: the fact that burial takes up so much space. This is the one argument that less-environmentally sound cremation has over it. 

Mountain View Cemetery is a 106-acre historic urban cemetery in the heart of Vancouver, British Columbia with Glen Hodges as cemetery manager. "Mountain View is quite unique in that we have been practicing 'sustainable' interment for more than 100 years. Since shortly after establishing the cemetery in 1886, we have always allowed families to re-use existing burial space. With the family's permission we reopen an existing grave, remove the human remains, deepen the grave, place what is left of the human remains back in the bottom, cover it with a couple inches of soil and the site is then used for another casket interment. Of the 85 casket burials we do in an average year now, probably one-third involve some kind of re-use and a 3rd or 4th casket being interred in an existing grave."

Glenn Jennelle is general manager of Duck Run Natural Cemetery in Penn Laird, Virginia, which offers what it calls "renewable" lots. 

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"Renewable lots are used in the UK and it works out well for them. They rotate on a 50 year basis. Think of the land that is saved by this way of burial. In setting up our own renewable options our owner and I thought 75 years would be more appropriate. If anything remains in the grave, mainly bone fragments, they would be left alone and then, our hopes are maybe a grandchild or great grandchild would want to be buried in the space. We have two folks interred this way and a few more renewable lots sold. It's something new and it takes time. We furnish headstones at no charge for this type of burial, and after 75 years they will be placed in the memorial walkways near the grave site."

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But from Hunter Mohring came an explanation that aligns renewable grave use with the part of green burial that most resonates with me--recycling the human body back into the soil. Hunter is administrative steward of The Meadow, a nature preserve and natural burial cemetery in the southern portion of the Valley of Virginia nestled between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Allegheny Spine. The Meadow offers what it calls "successive sites." Hunter has sold over half of The Meadow plots as "successive" rather than perpetual. Reuse is the most natural thing to do yet as old as that idea is, it's too "new" in our current culture so The Meadow offers both successive and perpetual graves.

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What Hunter likes about the idea is that it is completely and directly aligned with the ideals of both "natural" and "sustainable." "When one's primary reason for using natural burial is to honor and participate in Earth's life cycles and contribute to the sustainability of all life, it seems counter-intuitive to lock in one use by one person forever, thereby petrifying and/or preventing the natural life-impetus embedded in the 32 square feet of land and the environment around it. All life depends on soil and all soil requires lots of dead organic material; one might think of soil as constantly hungry and thirsty. If it's not supplied with its needs, it can't play it's part in the nurturing of new seeds, new plants, new wildlife."

From a financial point of view, says Hunter, if the cemetery were to ever approach full and every grave was perpetual, the life cycle of The Meadow's 5 acres would stagnate. With no room for new burials any reason to operate the cemetery and all income for its maintenance would be removed. Typical operating procedures render a cemetery unsustainable.

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Will these few cemeteries be the start of a trend? Who knows. I hope so. Modern green burial is still a new concept and while its precepts and intentions are set, the way to get there isn't fixed which means there's room for tweaking. I feel we have to address the issue of perpetual grave use or risk being called too timid to do the best thing. Calling for cemeteries to offer renewable plots won't be enough if we don't also change our attitudes toward grave rights.

"Fifty years may seem short for rotating graves, but it is enough to allow the 'natural thing' to happen to a body and then free life to do its next natural thing," says Hunter. "Seems right and fair to me."

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Should natural burial grave markers be subject to standards?

Grave at Ramsey Creek Preserve   photos by Tom Bailey

Grave at Ramsey Creek Preserve  photos by Tom Bailey

Humans probably have marked the graves of their dead for as long as they've lived in social groups, but the rise of massive cemetery headstones occurred only in the last couple centuries in America. It's easy to evoke an image of a modern cemetery with just a few strokes; green grass and upright stones or elaborate statues carved from stone and engraved and you know what it is.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to memorialize a loved one or to be memorialized yourself. Thomas Jefferson left explicit instructions for creating his tombstone, including engraving three accomplishments "because by these," he explained, "as testimonials that I have lived, I wish most to be remembered."

Town of Rhinebeck Cemetery Natural Burial Ground

Town of Rhinebeck Cemetery Natural Burial Ground

We don't use polished granite or marble headstones in memory of people in green or natural burial grounds. It's not that rock isn't green, though one could argue that engraving uses energy. It's that we're creating a new landscape--meadow or forest usually--not something that looks like a cemetery, though that word means simply a piece of ground where burials are made, and we imbue it with our own concept of what it should look like. We are recycling ourselves back into nature and becoming a part of it.

According to the Green Burial Council which sets standards and certifies cemeteries, "Natural and conservation cemeteries must develop a plan for limiting the types, sizes, and visibility of memorial markers/features to preserve or restore naturalistic vistas in the cemetery landscape." 

Yet I was disturbed on recent tours of green burial cemeteries along the East Coast by the proliferation of large stones with elaborate engravings.

Eloise Woods Community Natural Burial Park

Eloise Woods Community Natural Burial Park

All the cemeteries I visited and those in The Natural Burial Cemetery Guide put constraints on the kind of marker that's allowed on graves. Individual grave markers are usually limited to local stone that fits the landscape, must lay flat, not be polished or machine cut to shape. A few cemeteries impose size limits; Narrow Ridge Natural Burial Preserve in Washburn, Tennessee calls for grave markers of modest size, and at Eloise Woods Community Natural Burial Park in Austin, Texas markers must be less than 2 feet across. At Kokosing Nature Preserve in Gambier, Ohio graves are distinguished by unobtrusive markers. What struck me was how visible even a grave marker that fits the parameters can be.

Duck Run Natural Cemetery--stone path marks cremation sites

Duck Run Natural Cemetery--stone path marks cremation sites

Is this a problem? Isn't stone natural, especially if it was dug up in the cemetery anyway? A hundred years from now when a natural burial cemetery has become a forest will it detract if someone walking through the forest sees gravestones? Won't it in fact be kind of neat?

Green Hills Cemetery

Green Hills Cemetery

People sometimes perceive antipathy among green burial cemeteries to memorials. I think it's important to let people mark graves. Yet after visiting cemetery after cemetery, the size and number of objects began to worry me. Often I got caught up in bending over stones to see what they said and realized at the end that I hardly noticed the landscape that was being so lovingly created. Is the instinct to mark our passing through this world becoming mixed up with a human instinct towards grandiosity? Not everywhere, and not everyone, but natural burial actually doesn't look natural. In 20 years or so when there's nothing left of a body underground, what's the point of a personalized stone if the meadow or forest is the true memorial?

Kateri Meadow Natural Burial Preserve--no stone, just different flowers mark a grave.

Kateri Meadow Natural Burial Preserve--no stone, just different flowers mark a grave.

One solution cemeteries have come up with is to prohibit markers on individual graves and go for group memorials. This is especially relevant where a burial ground is attempting to create a new landscape and prohibiting human traffic is part of the strategy for getting plants going or preserving the look of the place; this is often seen with meadows.

Oak Hill Cemetery in Crawfordsville, Indiana doesn't permit individual grave markers and has erected a memorial wall with spaces for families to record the names of their dead and locate their graves in the section.

Cemeteries may designate such areas as "non-visitation," and anyone burying there is aware of the limitations. The Preserve at All Saints in Waterford, Michigan has both visitation and non-visitation sections, and non-visitation burials may be inscribed on a stone memorial wall. Maryrest Cemetery in Mahwah, New Jersey, doesn't allow individual's graves in the Saint Francis of Assisi natural section to be marked but their names are inscribed on scattered boulders.

Steelmantown Cemetery

Steelmantown Cemetery

There's something to be said for uniformity, like Catholic cemeteries which limit the size of headstones in their conventional cemeteries as a way to indicate that all are equal in death. Truly small stones big enough to list the name and dates of the dead would allow for memorialization but not make the oh-so-human statement of "Here I am!"

St. Michael's Meadow. At Calvary Cemetery natural graves are part of the meadow landscape, with conventional sections in the distance.

St. Michael's Meadow. At Calvary Cemetery natural graves are part of the meadow landscape, with conventional sections in the distance.