Winter Burials at the Cemetery

by | Feb 3, 2023

While this winter has not been the coldest in history, it is one of the snowiest.

Both cold and snow make winter burials more difficult. The ground is frozen and in the coldest of weather, the frost  line can go down to 6 feet. Snow covering the ground makes it difficult to locate graves. And then there is the matter of frozen fingers that need to operate machinery. 

Years ago, when graves were dug by hand (or pick ax), those who died in January, February, and March, were often not buried until Spring. The casketed bodies would be stored in cemetery “storage vaults” — small buildings constructed of stone or concrete on the cemetery property.  Those casketed bodies would be placed in there after the funeral and come April – and always before Memorial Day- the funeral home, the family, and the priest would select a day to inter the body in what was referred to as a “Spring Burial”. There are still some small communities in Minnesota where “Spring burials” continue to be practiced.  Calvary Cemetery in St. Paul had one of these buildings. It had been located on the circle of land near where the Bishops are buried. It was taken down many years ago and is now a rounded area of grass. 

 Today, we use less muscle and more mechanical power to do the actual digging. However, it is still difficult to do grave location when there is 17 inches of snow on the ground. Before any digging is done, the steel “pegs” must be located so that the field staff know the grave boundaries. If the frost line is deep, we need to “burn” the grave.

This is a process where a metal hood (image left) is placed over the grave and the ground is heated with petroleum fuel so that the backhoe can get into the ground to begin taking out the dirt, which comes out in a boulder-like form. In extreme cold, sometimes the ground needs to be thawed for 48 hours. This can make prepping the cemetery for a heavy burial week quite challenging for the field staff. 

The “Cold Weather Heroes” of the Cemetery

In the past, some cemeteries would use a method of lighting charcoal on the ground. Then a pick ax or jack-hammer would be used to break up the frozen soil so that it could be shoveled out. Not a job for the weak. Older cemetery workers still can tell the tale of these days and how hard it was on their bodies. 

Prior to a burial, cemetery personnel will then snow-blow a path from the road for the mourners to get to the grave for the committal service.  The vault company representative can then make sure the vault is installed and the lowering device is set up.  Most of this process is never seen or understood by families. The cemetery personnel are in the background of all this work. They are the “cold-weather heroes” of this ministry. 

We are seeing a trend develop since Covid-19, where ground burial for cremated remains is held off by families until warmer weather. In a sense, it is almost like the pattern of older time burials being repeated with cremation. Not too much of a surprise as trends tend to repeat themselves. 

Of course there are more things that go on in winter, especially with plowing roads, keeping sidewalks clean and salted, removing dead trees, and attending work related safety classes. And, it is obvious, that all cemetery personnel count the days until warmer weather and softer turf. In the meantime, we thank those who serve our families through snow, rain, freezing, or debilitating heat.