Exploring the green burial

Outlook editor Teri Ott explores burials that are kinder to the environment: No vault, no embalming, but sometimes, there are ducks.

Photo of Ducks, Taglio river in Cervignano

Fifteen years ago, Kenny Kyger noticed a trend in his family’s Virginia funeral home business. People were asking for a different kind of burial — more natural, less expensive, less destructive of the environment.

“‘Can’t you just take me up the side of the hill? I need a rest,’” Kenny recalled one person saying.

Kenny went looking for a special space to accommodate these new requests.

“What kind of property were you looking for?” I asked, as Kenny and I spoke by phone recently.

“Not a flat field,” he responded. “I wanted something with a nice roll to it.” He wanted something calming. He wanted this space to be inviting.

Duck Run Natural Cemetery, set in the
Shenandoah Valley, has the rolling acreage
and soothing presence that owner Kenny Kyger
wanted. Photo by Teri Ott.

Forty years ago, cremation was the new burial practice with which people were growing more comfortable. Today, it’s the green burial.

This trend led Kenny in search of the right property to start Virginia’s first green cemetery. He found and purchased 113 acres of an old dairy farm in Penn Laird, Virginia, and named it Duck Run Natural Cemetery.

The acreage Kenny bought had a pond, which Kenny liked because “water is soothing.” The property, which is set in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley, gives visitors views of the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains. It has the “nice roll” that Kenny desired.

And there are ducks. Two mallard ducks greeted us as we passed by the pond on the day I visited. They attend every service, I was told.

For his green cemetery, Kenny needed open space, not a forest. “You can’t bury someone under a tree because you’ll likely damage and kill the root system.”

For his green cemetery, Kenny needed open space, not a forest. “You can’t bury someone under a tree because you’ll likely damage and kill the root system.”

Duck Run Cemetery has 650 plots laid out per acre, less than a traditional cemetery’s 1,000 to 1,200 per acre. This extra space gives them room to plant trees after burials and make walking trails. “Trees need a lot of ground space,” Kenny added. “If you plant a tree that’s going to grow 50 feet tall, it needs 50 feet of ground space.” People also often ask Kenny for a tree to be planted on top of their grave.

But he gently redirects this request. “It’d look like a bad hair transplant.”

Kenny and his team have carefully planned and laid out the property to maintain the land’s natural aesthetic.

Kenny and other green-cemetery owners across the country adhere to guidelines set by the Green Burial Council, a nonprofit organization established in 2005 by Juliette and Joe Sehee. Green burials would not gain traction, the Sehees believed, without a credible entity to provide third-party oversight and the sharing of open source information. The Green Burial Council ( provides certification and a national listing of qualifying providers in three categories: natural, where burial occurs without a concrete vault, chemical embalming, and with a biodegradable container in a cemetery completely dedicated to these green practices; hybrid, with a green area within a conventional cemetery; and conservation, where a land trust entity preserves land that is in part used for burial.

Natural burial grounds, cemeteries and preserves are operated by a variety of owners: municipal governments, religious groups, individuals, nonprofits, for-profits, and others. Most are committed to following conservation best practices while also offering meaningful experiences for grieving families and friends. Those registered through the Green Burial Council adhere to the following criteria:

  • Caring for the dead with minimal environmental impact that aids in the conservation of natural resources
  • Reduction of carbon emissions
  • Protection of worker health
  • Restoration and/or preservation of habitat

Green burial cemeteries like Duck Run forgo toxic embalming processes, do away with vaults, and use biodegradable containers, caskets, shrouds and urns. At Duck Run, you can leave fresh flowers on the grave, but not plastic, and choose a casket made from pine, bamboo, or wicker, or a biodegradable shroud. No herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers will be used to keep the grass green or the weeds tamed. Grave markers may simply be GPS coordinates, or a stone indigenous to the area.

Duck Run Natural Cemetery is about 15 miles from my home in Harrisonburg, Virginia, so after interviewing Kenny by phone, I drove out for a visit on a cold Friday in early January. Glenn Jennelle, the general manager, gave me a tour, carefully driving me around the property in his ATV, making sure we didn’t make any new tread marks in the wet winter soil. Glenn explained Duck Run as a 150-year project, replacing non-native plants with indigenous vegetation, returning the acreage to its own origin story.

Duck Run Natural Cemetery in Penn Laird, Virginia. Photo by Teri Ott.

Nine family farms surround Duck Run, and Duck Run serves as the community’s nature preserve, park and picnic spot.

“They love us,” Glenn said when I asked how the neighbors felt about having a cemetery next door.  “We’re bringing back a lot of the wildlife that used to be here,” Glenn explained. “Come on out anytime and have a picnic.

“It’s one of the best places in the world to fly a kite. No power lines. Nice wind.”

Glenn showed me the indigenous fieldstones used to mark the graves, then drove me over to where a few of the plots are laid out. A couple of fresh mounds lay in the earth, people recently buried by loved ones. Without the huge vaults traditional cemeteries use, there’s more settling to deal with after the burial. This leads to some laborious upkeep and the need to pile dirt on top of graves to keep the land flat and walkable. This upkeep affects the cost, but while cremation is the most economical burial, Kenny says, people interested in green burials worry about its release of CO2. Green burials are still more economical than traditional, however, because of the cost of vaults, caskets, tombstones and cemetery upkeep.

Duck Run has a 1 1/4 acre pond that is stocked with fish — bluegill, perch, crappie, bass, catfish. People come to fish, catch and release, Glenn explained. Then he told me about a boy who’d lost his father in a terrible motorcycle accident. The mom would come to visit her husband’s grave, but the boy would stay back in the pavilion.

“Kids are scared to death of cemeteries,” Glenn said. Things changed when the boy learned he could bring his fishing pole, and that the pond was stocked.

“Now the boy wakes up in the morning and says, ‘Mom, let’s go down to Duck Run cemetery,’ ” Glenn said.

Glenn and I strolled past the pond and the ducks, and we wound our way to the back of the property and the tallest hill, where Glenn assured me I’d get the best view. We stopped a couple more times so Glenn could show me the scattering garden and the renewable lots. Fairly new to America, renewable lots are regularly used around the world to conserve space. Seventy-five years after the deceased has returned to the earth, the renewable lot is offered to another. This 75-year term extends far beyond the time a body takes to return to its natural elements in the earth.

Riding in that ATV with Glenn, touring this natural cemetery, I couldn’t help but recall the words of committal I had memorized from all the graveside services I’d officiated as a minister:

“In sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to almighty God our brother/sister, and we commit his/her body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Blessed are those who die in the Lord, says the Spirit. They rest from their labors, and their works follow them” (Book of Common Worship).

Blessed are those who die in the Lord, says the Spirit.

I got out of the ATV on the top of the hill, pausing to take in the view, the property, the engraved fieldstones laid out before me. It was so quiet out there. It was also cold. The down jacket I wore had kept the cold out to this point, but it was time to get warm. I thanked Glenn for the tour as we drove back, and the quiet rumble of his ATV didn’t disturb the ducks, or the hawk overhead, or the deer grazing in a far field — every creature was quite used to each other. The blueish-gray mountains surrounding this patch of earth seemed like good, solid company to keep for eternity. This would be a good place to rest, I thought, and Glenn and I headed back to our lives and the work that awaited us.