Brutally cold weather can complicate things, even for the dead

In my Hoosier homeland where a 90-year-old family friend was to be buried Monday in a rural cemetery, snow, bitter cold and roads blocked by drifts conspired to postpone services until the end of this week. If shoveling your front walk seems impossible in Monday's 16-degrees-below-zero chill, imagine how difficult this weather can be for gravediggers.

“We knew the cold was coming, so the grave sites were prepared yesterday,” says Micah Singerman, associate executive director of Shalom Memorial Park in Arlington Heights, where two people were buried Monday in accordance with Jewish tradition requiring the dead to be buried without unnecessary delays, often within a day or maybe two. “There's no difference in the equipment today than there is in the summer. Everything just goes slowly.”

Cemeteries such as Memory Gardens in Arlington Heights sometimes use propane gas or charcoal heaters to soften the ground to make grave-digging easier, says Jessica McDunn, a spokeswoman for the Dignity Memorial Network, headquartered in Houston, where residents Monday were battling wind chills in the balmy 20s.

“We are encouraging families (in bitter cold areas) to relocate their services into indoor chapels for safety reasons,” McDunn says.

“When it comes to burials, we are at the mercy of the cemetery,” says John Glueckert Jr., president of Glueckert Funeral Home in Arlington Heights. He says that adding heavy snow to the brutal cold actually can make burials easier.

“The snow is helping us out, like a blanket,” agrees Tom Flores, who is in charge of digging graves at Forest Park's historic Waldheim Cemetery, which has been burying members of the local Jewish community in all sorts of weather since 1873.

“We have not postponed anything yet,” says David Penzell, director of operations for Waldheim Cemetery, which features ornate arches, wrought-iron fencing and narrow paths that require work to make them accessible to backhoes.

“Our cemetery is really congested with monuments in most cases, so most of the time, we work with shovels,” Torres says, “About five or six years ago, the frost level was down about 18 to 20 inches, so we had to use jackhammers to open up the grave.”

In those cases, workers with jackhammers might spend 20 minutes in the cold preparing the ground for the open-air backhoes, which complete the job in another 20 minutes, Torres says. He remembers one time when there wasn't room for a backhoe.

“We had to dig that one by hand. That took about two-and-a-half or three hours for three of us,” Torres recalls.

“We're like a family here. The main thing is safety first. We dress warmly and there's a truck parked on the side in case any of us need to get inside and warm up,” Torres says. “I have about five layers of pants on and the same amount from the waist up.”

Torres and his crew need to dig a grave by Wednesday for the next burial.

This winter hasn't postponed any burials or funeral services so far for Glueckert Funeral Home.

“We serve the public, so we do whatever we have to do,” Glueckert says, noting that the funeral home sometimes delays a service by an hour or two to give family and friends extra time to travel hazardous roads.

The only time Glueckert can remember Mother Nature causing a burial to be postponed was in the 1980s.

“Flooding caused a problem,” Glueckert says. “We still had the service, we just waited about a week to do the burial. It (the gravesite) was literally under water.”

Delays can be traumatic for families waiting to bury a loved one. But the health and safety of the gravediggers and of the mourners who visit that grave are most important.

“You need a little bit of luck and you hope for the best,” Penzell says. “But you don't risk the living.”

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