A green cemetery could become an interment option in Central Virginia.
The owners of Panorama Farms are hoping to add a natural burial ground to their property in Albemarle County.
Green burial grounds do not use embalming, have no plastic liners, concrete vaults or exotic wood caskets and do not have plastic memorials. Instead, they use biodegradable containers, and gravesites are marked with flat stones or native plantings.
Chris Murray, a member of the family that owns the property, said they are continuing to try to keep the farm an open space.
“The question that faces every farm in our situation is, how do you pay for it? We believe and we hope that this will be the answer towards that,” he said. “Revenue from this would enable future generations to pay for what is our stated family mission — to maintain open space.”
The farm’s owners have applied for a special-use permit for a cemetery on almost 20 acres near the farm’s northwestern entrance off Reas Ford Lane. The property is zoned Rural Area, which allows cemeteries with a permit.
State law currently requires cemeteries to be set back 750 feet from the nearest residents, and the farm has received waivers from two neighbors for the cemetery to be closer to their property.
Murray said the farm has been an example of “innovative and pragmatic environmental stewardship” for almost 70 years.
“My mother and father were foam-at-the-mouth environmentalists, and they’re both dead, but they would love it that we’re continuing to try to keep the farm an open space,” he said. “If we get the special-use permit, and if the business is successful, it would enable the Murray family — we’re now welcoming the fourth generation — to continue this legacy as long as possible.”
As more baby boomers are starting to bury their parents, Murray said they’re seeking green alternatives.
“We’re now looking for an alternative to the sort of conventional, standard, casket-involved burial or cremation,” he said. “We hope to make it locally a viable option for respectfully burying the dead.”
In a survey provided by Murray of green or “hybrid” cemeteries in the South, most said they had between eight and 25 attendees for burials and between 15 and 50 burials a year.
The current gravel road off Reas Ford Lane would remain, and another entrance that is currently gated and only leads to a wooded area could be lengthened in the future as needed, Murray said. They would have about 10 main parking spots and about 50 overflow spots, and possibly a pavilion in the future.
“The whole idea here is to create as little impervious surface as possible,” he said.
In terms of the quality of the roads on the property, Mariah Gleason, a county senior planner, said Albemarle County Fire Rescue has indicated that there may not need to be any improvements to those roads, but the county is still reviewing the proposal.
“At the time that a pavilion might be put in place in the future, they would reassess whether the roads on the property would need to be improved,” she said.
During a recent community meeting, some neighbors had concerns about traffic around any services and buffering of the cemetery.
Jennifer Reed, who lives near the property, said she didn’t have issues with the green cemetery concept, but that she was concerned with potential increased traffic along Reas Ford Lane.
“The road is not kept up very well by the state anyway because it is a dirt road, and we battle that constantly on a yearly basis,” she said. “With a lot of traffic coming in for funerals, we wonder what that’s going to do to the condition of the roads.”
Murray said from talking with cemetery operators that somewhere between 30% and 50% of plots are usually reserved, and that the funerals at the site will typically be small and the business will start slowly.
“We can put up signage, we could let the public know when a service might be held, we could email or text to let you know — there are a number of sort of operational issues that we’d be glad to work out to mitigate that as much as possible,” he said.
Linda Thompson, who said her mother lives on the other side of the Rivanna River from the farm, asked about future protection of the site, if the cemetery is approved.
“What would happen if 50 years down the road the family or whoever owns the farm at that time decides that it does need to be sold for development? Is there something that would protect the area that is hopefully going to be the burial ground?” she asked.
Virginia has a Cemetery Board that regulates for-profit cemeteries that offer perpetual care services or pre-need burial contracts and that are required to maintain trust fund accounts. Murray said that if the Panorama Farms cemetery did fail, the monies in that trust fund would be used for perpetual maintenance.
If the cemetery ultimately was approved and was so successful it needed to expand, Murray said they would like to expand into the corner of the property as much as possible.
Another neighbor, Sharon Davis, asked if the farm had proposed landscaping to offset the impacts to her property.
Gleason said Albemarle does not mandate landscaping or buffering of any kind with this particular use, but Murray said they were open to adding some kind of buffer.
“We can do plantings … there’s a possibility of a fence, whatever would be necessary for both of us to feel protected,” he said.
Public hearings before the county’s Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors on the proposal have not yet been scheduled.