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Old 02-10-2010, 11:56 AM
Diceman Diceman is online now
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How do they bury someone in the winter?

The recent death of John Murtha has reminded me of a question I've wondered about occasionally. How do you dig a grave when the ground is frozen? I know that soil only freezes a couple of inches down, and I'm sure a backhoe can break thru that frozen layer, but what did they do before such equipment was available? Or what if you have to bury a pet, and don't have access to heavy equipment? (We had several cats growing up, but none of them died during the winter, so this never became an issue.) Can you hack thru frozen ground with enough effort? Do you warm up the ground somehow? Or do you just have to wait until the spring thaw?
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Old 02-10-2010, 12:04 PM
Duckster Duckster is offline
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Old 02-10-2010, 12:09 PM
N9IWP N9IWP is offline
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We had to dealy my mother's burial because of the ground conditions. This was in April and the ground was too wet or something.

Brian
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Old 02-10-2010, 12:11 PM
Leaffan Leaffan is offline
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We wait till the spring. (Canada)
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Old 02-10-2010, 12:42 PM
Sapo Sapo is offline
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Graveyards in Vermont usually guesstimated the demand for holes in autumn and dug them beforehand. Dying in March normally meant waiting for the thaw.
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Old 02-10-2010, 12:47 PM
chrisk chrisk is offline
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Graveyards in Vermont usually guesstimated the demand for holes in autumn and dug them beforehand. Dying in March normally meant waiting for the thaw.
That sounds interesting - but I don't see how a demand guesstimate strategy would work if the families aren't satisfied to take whatever gravesite is available. What about widows/widowers who had already arranged to be buried next to their departed spouse?
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Old 02-10-2010, 12:55 PM
stpauler stpauler is online now
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I took the kids to a museum one day and as we were winding our way back home, we came up to Lakewood Cemetary in Minneapolis. My step-grandmother was buried there a couple years ago so I asked the kids if they wanted to play "find the grave". As we were walking through the tombstones and grave markers, we saw a backhoe finish up digging a grave-sized hole. This was December in Minnesota, so that's apparently how we can do it up here.
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Old 02-10-2010, 01:16 PM
elfkin477 elfkin477 is offline
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Originally Posted by Leaffan View Post
We wait till the spring. (Canada)
My paternal grandmother died the Feb. before I was born, and they waited until May of that year to bury her. My question is what happened for those three months? Was she, um, frozen? It's not something I really want to ask my dad.
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Old 02-10-2010, 01:22 PM
Bill Door Bill Door is online now
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There was an episode of Northern Exposure where the undertaker went around in the fall assessing the condition of the residents to get an idea of how many graves he would have to dig before the ground froze. I don't think it would work, but it pays to plan ahead.
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Old 02-10-2010, 01:26 PM
Sapo Sapo is offline
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Originally Posted by chrisk View Post
That sounds interesting - but I don't see how a demand guesstimate strategy would work if the families aren't satisfied to take whatever gravesite is available. What about widows/widowers who had already arranged to be buried next to their departed spouse?
Those are good only for, er, walk-ins, I guess. Family plots and all that, who knows. My knowledge comes from a graveside conversation with a graveyard guardian.

I do know for a fact that a religious order had one grave dug every winter. Just in case. A similar case to a family plot but for a very large family where they can start to play statistics. I guess they didn't want their guys lying on a morgue for a season.

As for people who hadn't bought their lot beforehand, I guess they could just take it or leave it.
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Old 02-10-2010, 01:31 PM
Happy Poster Happy Poster is offline
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Interesting fact I learned just the other day.

It is "forbidden" to die on Svalbard, as it is so cold the bodies do not decay, and neither do the nasties within them (Such as, for example, the 1917 flu virus). So they try to get the dying off the archipelago by boat/plane before they finally snuff it... the cemetery hasn't had a new "customer" since 1930!
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Old 02-10-2010, 01:32 PM
Leaffan Leaffan is offline
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Originally Posted by elfkin477 View Post
My paternal grandmother died the Feb. before I was born, and they waited until May of that year to bury her. My question is what happened for those three months? Was she, um, frozen? It's not something I really want to ask my dad.
Refrigerated. They have storage facilities at the graveyard. Of course with cremation it's a bit easier.
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Old 02-10-2010, 01:35 PM
Bijou Drains Bijou Drains is offline
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There was a book and TV show about guys who were buried in the far north of Canada around 1845 and when they located the graves 20 years ago their bodies had very little decay due to the cold.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frankli...ost_expedition
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  #14  
Old 02-10-2010, 01:38 PM
Hadrian's Wall Hadrian's Wall is offline
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Or like this guy, when he wanted to revive the 1918 Spanish Flu. He looked in Alaska:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn...100900932.html
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  #15  
Old 02-10-2010, 02:04 PM
Slithy Tove Slithy Tove is offline
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My after-school job as a teenager in Wisconsin was in a Catholic cemetery. It beat working in a greasy fast food restaurant.

I buried hundreds of people, many in the winter. The ground were I lived in Green County was a half-foot of rich, black dirt, then heavy, sandy clay (just south of the Driftless Area, and just north of the sandstone of the Illinois prairie). It made for tough going even when it wasn't frozen, but it never froze solid more than two feet below the surface even at its worst.

Usually, we'd contract for a backhoe to come out and dig the grave, no problem in any season; bit in like it was ice cream. But when a wife would out-live her husband by years and years, the cemetery would grow up around her plot and we couldn't get the backhoe in for the toombstones. So I'd have to go in with a pick. (But it still beat working with deep-fat fryer grease.)

The toughest part of digging winter graves was sounding the plot. Coffins and their vaults (the concrete platform & shell over the actual coffin) can shift underground over the years, often into the the next plot, and when you dig a grave, you could hit the edge of a previously-installed neighbor's vault. Doing this with a backhoe can tear open the whole works. To avoid this, before digging the grave you take a long steel rod and poke down to find open ground. This can't be done in frozen clay.

Unlike warm-weather graves, winter graves were left piled with large clods of ice clay. In the spring we'd come back to smooth and re-sod.

There weren't that many frozen graves to be dug, though. There's an annual phenomenom call the the "False Spring," in late January when the temperatures rise above freezing for a few days or weeks, then plunge back down. We'd get a wave of deaths among the elderly during ths time, since a lot of bacteria and viruses would flare up. The same warm spell that killed them made the ground easier to dig their graves in.
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Old 02-10-2010, 02:44 PM
boytyperanma boytyperanma is offline
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Originally Posted by Diceman View Post
The recent death of John Murtha has reminded me of a question I've wondered about occasionally. How do you dig a grave when the ground is frozen? I know that soil only freezes a couple of inches down, and I'm sure a backhoe can break thru that frozen layer, but what did they do before such equipment was available? Or what if you have to bury a pet, and don't have access to heavy equipment? (We had several cats growing up, but none of them died during the winter, so this never became an issue.) Can you hack thru frozen ground with enough effort? Do you warm up the ground somehow? Or do you just have to wait until the spring thaw?
As someone who ends up digging into the ground during the winter I can answer a few questions.

First I am in MA. The ground freezes far deeper then a few inches. Right now the frost layer is about 3 feet. When running water lines and such 4 feet is the absolute minimum depth to avoid freezing during our winters.

You would be impressed with a backhoes inability to dig through frost. A backhoe is actually not very good at applying force into the ground. A few inches of frost can easily thwart a backhoes attempts at digging.

If you need to dig during the winter their are options.

You can heat up the ground. One thing I do if I'm going to have to dig down is build a 'box' over the intended area and run a space heater into that area for a day or two. The box can be say a doghouse that happens to be around or a tarp draped over a few posts. This method is horribly energy inefficient but it can thaw the ground out enough to be workable.

The backhoes I bring in during the winter have a jackhammer option. They can swap off the bucket for a backhoe sized jackhammer. Digging a trench is a slow process of jack-hammering up a foot of so of frost then swapping the bucket back on and scooping it out.

The same process can be done with a normal sized jackhammer or hammer-drill as well its just slower. Even with non-powered tools you can work through frost slowly but surely. I'll tell you from experience however digging through frost with a pick axe is a miserable day's worth of work.

My business is wells and water pumps. If digging through frozen ground is the only option available to get the water running, I do so. If there is any option other then digging in the winter that is the preferred option.
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  #17  
Old 02-10-2010, 02:49 PM
postcards postcards is offline
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In the years before backhoes there was often a 'holding vault' where coffins would be stored until the ground was softer.

Like the picture in the link, they look like mausoleums, but were usually built into hillsides.
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  #18  
Old 02-10-2010, 03:20 PM
runcible spoon runcible spoon is offline
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Pff... people are so sensitive nowadays. Used to be, you'd just stack 'em like cordwood 'til spring thaw. But now it's all 'dignity' this, and 'hygiene' that, and 'bloated pile of decaying corpses' the other. Pansies.
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Old 02-10-2010, 04:20 PM
cuberdon cuberdon is offline
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Originally Posted by Slithy Tove View Post
My after-school job as a teenager in Wisconsin was in a Catholic cemetery. It beat working in a greasy fast food restaurant.
Thank you for posting. I'd never even thought about such things, but I guess there are a lot of practical details about burials that would not be obvious at first glance.
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  #20  
Old 02-10-2010, 04:37 PM
Ponderoid Ponderoid is offline
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Earlier thread on the same subject
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  #21  
Old 02-10-2010, 04:51 PM
Chronos Chronos is offline
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Usually, we'd contract for a backhoe to come out and dig the grave, no problem in any season; bit in like it was ice cream. But when a wife would out-live her husband by years and years, the cemetery would grow up around her plot and we couldn't get the backhoe in for the toombstones.
Maybe they just leave more room between the graves in Pennsylvania, but when my grandfather died, he was buried in the middle of an established cemetery, and the hole was dug by a backhoe-like device. That was in the early autumn, but I can't imagine that the cold would make it all that much harder to get the backhoe in.
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  #22  
Old 02-10-2010, 05:05 PM
Bijou Drains Bijou Drains is offline
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There are some pretty small backhoes these days , they could probably use a small one if the space is tight.
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  #23  
Old 02-10-2010, 05:45 PM
Sapo Sapo is offline
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Originally Posted by Slithy Tove View Post
... There's an annual phenomenom call the the "False Spring," in late January when the temperatures rise above freezing for a few days or weeks, then plunge back down. We'd get a wave of deaths among the elderly during ths time, since a lot of bacteria and viruses would flare up. The same warm spell that killed them made the ground easier to dig their graves in.
Interesting. Probably related to the "green Christmas, full graveyard" wisdom of Vermont pastors.
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  #24  
Old 02-10-2010, 05:46 PM
Gbro Gbro is offline
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A nearby cemetery moves all the grave stones away from the new grave site.
The backhoe bucket is called a frost bucket, much smaller.
I dug many graves when in my teen's by hand and we had to warm the ground for a couple days in some cases. It realy depends on how much snow cover. With heavy snow there might not be any frost at all, then it can be 3+ feet another time.
Like I posted in the other thread, some holes are not too deep
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  #25  
Old 02-10-2010, 06:03 PM
Fleetwood Fleetwood is offline
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Never dug a grave, but had an uncle die in New Brunswick, Canada during February a couple of years ago. They didn't plug him until May.
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  #26  
Old 02-10-2010, 06:09 PM
The Tooth The Tooth is online now
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Originally Posted by Leaffan View Post
We wait till the spring. (Canada)
No, my dad died on New Year's Eve and was buried a few days later. I don't recall it being particularly warm.
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  #27  
Old 02-10-2010, 06:29 PM
t-bonham@scc.net t-bonham@scc.net is offline
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Originally Posted by postcards View Post
In the years before backhoes there was often a 'holding vault' where coffins would be stored until the ground was softer.

Like the picture in the link, they look like mausoleums, but were usually built into hillsides.
I was a pallbearer for my Grandmothers funeral, in late winter in Minnesota. There was no graveside service, just us pallbearers who took the casket to the cemetery, and put it into a little vault building. There were 9 spaces in the building, 4 were already filled with caskets.

The actual burial took place a few months later, with various nearby family members present.

It was in a small town in western Minnesota, and they said they just did not dig graves in the winter. With backhoes, etc. they certainly could have. But they didn't want to spend the money, and worry about disturbing other graves. (Grandma was to be buried right next to Grandpa, under a common monument.) And there was no real need to do the burial during the winter, waiting until spring was easier for everyone.
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Old 02-10-2010, 08:48 PM
sweetie pea sweetie pea is offline
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I'm in the lower midwest, so the ground doesn't freeze too deeply most winters. I remember my grandfather (whose father was a gravedigger in the pre-backhoe days) mentioning more than once that when so-and-so died, they had to build a fire over the grave area to thaw the ground enough to be able to dig. The big problem, according to him, was when someone died in the spring after 10-inch rainfalls and the hearse couldn't get through the mud. As late as the 1950's the coffin of one of my grandfather's cousins had to be taken by horse and wagon from the main road to the gravesite.
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Old 02-10-2010, 11:05 PM
banjoDavid banjoDavid is offline
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Rosehill Cemetery in Chicago is my nature preserve 2 blocks away. Wildlife, flora, and meditation right down the street. Some beautiful monuments too.

During the winter, they pile bags of charcoal on the ground, set them alight. and cover them with a 55 gallon drum sliced in half, with a 3 inch diameter chimney stuck on the side to heat the ground. I don't know how long they heat the ground, probably 2 or 3 days, then dig a grave with a backhoe.
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Old 02-10-2010, 11:29 PM
Gorsnak Gorsnak is offline
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Originally Posted by Leaffan View Post
We wait till the spring. (Canada)
As a kid I recall my father helping to hand dig graves in winter (rural Saskatchewan - the frost goes down ~6'). It would be a largish group effort using picks and I believe sometimes fires to thaw the ground. These days it's just backhoes.
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Old 02-10-2010, 11:38 PM
elmwood elmwood is offline
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My mother died last March, when the ground was still on the hard side in western New York. Apparently, it was a mild winter, and a small backhoe was used to dig her grave.
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Old 02-11-2010, 03:39 AM
Sapo Sapo is offline
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Rosehill Cemetery in Chicago is my nature preserve 2 blocks away. Wildlife, flora, and meditation right down the street. Some beautiful monuments too.

During the winter, they pile bags of charcoal on the ground, set them alight. and cover them with a 55 gallon drum sliced in half, with a 3 inch diameter chimney stuck on the side to heat the ground. I don't know how long they heat the ground, probably 2 or 3 days, then dig a grave with a backhoe.
So much for wildlife, flora and meditation, then.
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  #33  
Old 02-11-2010, 06:54 AM
Diceman Diceman is online now
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They talked about "holding vaults" a lot in the earlier thread. Now that I've heard of them, I think there's one in an old cemetery nearby. It's a small stone building, I guess maybe big enough for six or eight coffins (two wide and three or four high). It's the only thing in the cemetery that's not a regular grave. I've always thought it was a family vault, but now I think it's probably the holding vault.
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Old 02-11-2010, 10:00 AM
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Originally Posted by boytyperanma View Post
You can heat up the ground. One thing I do if I'm going to have to dig down is build a 'box' over the intended area and run a space heater into that area for a day or two. The box can be say a doghouse that happens to be around or a tarp draped over a few posts. This method is horribly energy inefficient but it can thaw the ground out enough to be workable.
I saw one of these contraptions running at a cemetary near me.
It looked like it was made out of a couple of steel barrels cut in half. They had a small propane tank running to it and you could see the heat/steam rising from it.
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Old 02-11-2010, 01:51 PM
Mike Fun Mike Fun is offline
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I used to work at a cemetery in MA when I was a teen. We had one of those propane powered half cylinders to heat the ground and a small backhoe to do the bulk of the digging. We would jump into the hole to square off the sides and bottom by shovel. I was amazed to learn how much warmer it was in the hole compared to outside.
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Old 02-11-2010, 02:42 PM
Elendil's Heir Elendil's Heir is offline
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Originally Posted by postcards View Post
In the years before backhoes there was often a 'holding vault' where coffins would be stored until the ground was softer.

Like the picture in the link, they look like mausoleums, but were usually built into hillsides.
Around here they're also called "receiving vaults." The one in the link looks like the one behind and below Lincoln's Tomb in Springfield, Ill. - am I right? His remains were kept there while the tomb was under construction.
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Old 02-11-2010, 04:16 PM
postcards postcards is offline
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Around here they're also called "receiving vaults." The one in the link looks like the one behind and below Lincoln's Tomb in Springfield, Ill. - am I right? His remains were kept there while the tomb was under construction.
You are correct; I found that by Googling 'holding vault'.
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Old 02-11-2010, 05:06 PM
Sarabellum1976 Sarabellum1976 is offline
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In the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, which was set in Alabama, there's a bit concerning this. I don't have my copy handy, but it was when Calpurnia took Scout and Jem to her church, and the narrator noted that occasionally coffins were covered with chunks of ice until such time as a grave could be dug. Due to the *hardness* of the ground in that area, though, not to cold.
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Old 02-11-2010, 09:37 PM
Leo Bloom Leo Bloom is offline
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In Tibet, where the ground is almost always rock hard and there is hardly any wood, the bodies are left out on the ground to be picked clean by the vultures; the ceremony is called in English "sky burial."
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