The Iceman Cometh – and his effect on Winter Burials

By Kerry Munday

The winter is always a source of complaint for many people, and this year is no exception.  With stories of ice storms, extreme cold, piles of snow and, who can forget –“frost quakes”, this winter has been very tough. 

Winter weather has led to a few different cemetery management practices, from using winter storage, to having specialized tools for Interments, to pre-digging plots.  I spoke to a few organizations about their cemetery management practices during this season.

Winter Storage

In earlier days, winter storage, or “Dead Houses”, were often used in the absence of refrigerated morgues.  The charnel house, or “Dead House”, is a landmark at the Aurora Cemetery Corporation in Ontario, where winter burials used to be stored over the winter months until they could be interred in the spring.  Built in 1868, the storage building is octagonal, and is one of only nine such structures known to have been built in all of Ontario.  The charnel house was used from the mid-19th Century to the early 20thCentury.  Only two of these original nine are believed to have survived to the present day.

Even now, some organizations use winter storage rather than digging plots during the winter, as they do not have the capability to do burials at that time.  Other Cemeteries have hills – and though a loader could still be used to dig, the risk of machines sliding on frozen ground and damaging markers already in place is too high to allow winter interments.  These cemeteries usually inter the deceased person in the cemetery’s winter vault and then remove and inter in the proper location in the spring. 

A few years ago, Stone Orchard Software started working on new cemetery softwarefunctionality for customers with winter storage, so that they could appropriately record interments and disinterments from their winter storage.  The functionality allows the selling of Pre-Need Disinterments.  When families arrive at the cemetery in the winter, they pay a winter storage fee (in order to inter the person in the winter vault) and also pre-pay for the spring burial (Pre-Need Disinterment) which is a disinterment and “re-interment” transaction.  This allows the cemetery to keep a complete history of the original interment into the winter vault (including the date and location within the vault), and to track the date the Deceased is disinterred from the winter vault and re-interred in the new plot.

Specialized Tools

Another form of winter burial involves the use of specialized tools to clear the snow and break through the frost.  Up here in Canada, frost sometimes makes the ground solid as far as four feet down.  A number of organizations use specialized tools so that they can do burials throughout the year. 

The tools include backhoes, jackhammers, augers, breakers, loaders, ice picks, frost buckets and propane heaters.  Backhoes are usually used for full burials, while jackhammers and augers are often used for cremation burials.  As frost can be a problem, especially in colder climates, a breaker, frost bucket or ripper tooth is attached to machines to break through the frost.  The ripper tooth is used at the City of Grande Prairie in Alberta when there is too much frost to dig with a regular bucket.  It can rip a groove along the edges and down the middle of the grave and basically break up the top.  Propane heaters are used to heat up the ground while excavating the site.  Burials can take anywhere from 1 hour to a full day in the winter, depending on the cemetery, the tools used, and type of interment.

Snow and ice removal is also very important, to clear the area for burial, and to ensure that no one slips.  Blades on the front of trucks, snow blowers and Bobcats can be used to clear the snow, and sand is spread to prevent slips. Boards or sheets of plywood are commonly spread for walking, as well as for machinery to access the site without damaging the frozen soil.  At the Aurora Cemetery Corporation, instead of having a graveside service a few rows in from the road, they sometimes will do roadside services to ensure everyone’s safety. 

In the spring, clean up may need to be done as well.  For example, at the City of Prince George in British Columbia, a lot of soil surrounds the burial site and needs to be raked.  Winter burials tend to sink about 1-2 feet after the winter thaw, so they are re-packed in the spring.  In addition, flooding at cemeteries occur from the melting snow in low lying areas.

Pre-Digging Plots

The City of Dryden in Ontario, the City of Saskatoon in Saskatchewan and the City of Grande Prairie use both specialized tools and pre-dug plots.  A number of plots are pre-dug in the fall and are loosely backfilled, or covered with plywood, so that it is easier to dig them in the winter, after removing the snow.  One issue that the City of Grande Prairie encounters is mid-winter melts, which create a hard layer of ice that is difficult to get through, and will sometimes flood the pre-dug winter graves making them unusable until they dry out.

In the Yukon, the cold season lasts for approximately 8 months, from late-September to early-May.  Due to the harsh winter temperatures and permafrost, it is difficult to excavate interment sites.   This environment has led the City of Whitehorse to mainly offer pre-dug plots during the winter. On an annual basis, cemetery staff will dig approximately 15 plots in areas they wish to use, or areas they estimate will be required.  The plots are covered with framed plywood sheets and numbered pickets are attached so they can find them under the snow. Sometimes plots are dug during the winter, when someone pre-purchases a plot and it hasn’t been pre-dug.  The main reason for doing this is that the City of Whitehorse has no way of storing the casket until thaw out so they need to bury right away.

Winter is indeed challenging for the death care industry, but there are various options available.  This winter especially reminds us of the difficulties that operators encounter. 

How do you handle winter burials?  What difficulties have you dealt with?