Wisconsin winter proves a challenge for cemeteries

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Rick Romell/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Friday, March 7, 2014

Some use propane, some use charcoal and some use a fang-like tool with a carbide tip. In La Crosse, the weapon of choice is the jackhammer.

Digging graves in Wisconsin through a long, brutal winter? Difficult. Not impossible.

“I've been here 30 years,” said E. Glen Porter III, an owner of Highland Memorial Park in New Berlin and president of the Wisconsin Cemetery and Cremation Association. “Every year I get the question: Do you dig in the winter?”

For cemetery operators across Wisconsin, the answer is yes, but the task isn't easy, and the methods vary.

“We use a 60-pound jackhammer with an air compressor,” said Jeff Reinhart, who has been wrestling with up to four feet of frost this winter in the cemeteries in La Crosse he oversees for the Catholic diocese.

The idea with the hand-controlled jackhammer is to outline the grave's perimeter, then drill across the entire area and break the icebound soil into chunks that can be scooped out with a backhoe. If the frost goes down more than 20 inches or so, the process is repeated.

This winter's freeze isn't the deepest Reinhart has seen in his more than three decades of cemetery work, but it's been the most tenacious. He brought the jackhammer out in November—a month earlier than usual—and hasn't put it away yet.

“This has been an unusual year,” he said. “I don't ever remember using the jackhammer for this long.”

'Frost teeth' help backhoe

At Highland Memorial Park, Porter's crews take a different tack. They fit the bucket of a backhoe with a pair of “frost teeth”—curved metal arms several feet long with carbide tips that, combined with the power and leverage of the backhoe, are strong enough to pierce the frozen ground.

“The width of the teeth is exactly the width of our grave, so I can set up once and then just dig along the long dimension of a grave until I get below the frost,” Porter said. “I also cut across the short direction twice, just so that I get smaller pieces … to break out.”

A crew working with frost teeth can dig a grave in about an hour. Using heat to soften the ground—the practice of many smaller cemeteries—takes much longer.

At the Catholic cemeteries in and around Stevens Point, superintendent John Okonek has four ground thawers, including one he just bought from a pair of Iowa farmers who make the things as a side business.

They look sort of like oil barrels cut in half lengthwise and fitted with smokestacks and a hole for a torch. You place the barrel open-end down over the grave site, insert a propane-powered torch and pump heat into the dome. Come back maybe 24 to 30 hours later and scoop out the now-soft dirt with a backhoe.

That's how it usually works. But this winter's propane shortage forced Okonek to rely on charcoal for a couple weeks.

“We're thawing an area about almost four feet across by eight to nine feet long,” he said. “And I'm putting in 11—what are they, 18- to 19-pound bags of Kingsford in there. I don't know how many pounds of charcoal that is. Quite a bit.”

Charcoal is cheap, but messy.

“You hit the backhoe and dig into the ground, you get this cloud of white dust,” Okonek said. It's also less effective than propane.

“When you get rain like we did here about a week ago, it forms ice underneath the snow on the top of the ground, and you try and thaw ice with charcoal, it just kind of melts it and puts the fire out,” Okonek said. “It's not a real good battle.”

Law urges year-round burials

Some Wisconsin cemeteries, particularly smaller ones, used to routinely decline to perform burials during the winter. But a state law enacted in 2001 requires cemetery authorities to provide for burials year round, “insofar as practicable.”

“But the cemetery is able to charge whatever it takes to get the job done,” Porter said.

Okonek said winter grave-digging can be especially difficult in older cemeteries with irregular rows that make it harder to know the location of snow-covered headstones.

“It's really easy to go in there with a piece of equipment and do more damage to headstones and everything else around there,” he said.

For the cemeteries in Stevens Point, he said, the thorniest problems come not in the dead of winter but with the early-spring thaw.

“Cemeteries have low spots and there's no drainage,” Okonek said. “Once the snow starts melting and you get rain, you get areas that are low where all this water gathers as the ground thaws.

“That's usually the time I hold burials. Water goes to a low spot, and you can't move it uphill.”

Last updated: 6:17 pm Friday, March 7, 2014

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