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?

Two second Google search
[li]Where Death Comes in Winter, and Burial in the Spring - New York Times article, 01 May 2005[/li][li]UP Winter Burials[/li][li]New York State, Division of Cemeteries - Winter Burials[/li][/ul]

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.


We wait till the spring. (Canada)

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

Refrigerated. They have storage facilities at the graveyard. Of course with cremation it’s a bit easier.

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.'s_lost_expedition

Or like this guy, when he wanted to revive the 1918 Spanish Flu. He looked in Alaska:

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Earlier thread on the same subject