Cemetery workers endured brutal winter

When a blizzard shut down schools, government agencies and businesses across the state on Jan. 6, Patrick Lewis and two assistants were on the job at Sunset Funeral Home and Memorial Park by dawn, making sure a local resident could receive a proper burial.

Fortunately, the grounds superintendent of the Danville cemetery and his crew had already dug the grave and covered it with several sheets of plywood before the snow started falling. But they still had to plow the funeral home parking lot and salt the path to the cemetery chapel in time for visitation.

Illinois' fourth coldest winter on record has been especially brutal on cemetery crews, who have had to dig through a deeper-than-usual frost line — 21/2 feet in some areas — to prepare for burials. Among other cold-related challenges.

"If a family wants to have services," Lewis said, "we still have to have the services."

Sunset has had 55 burials in 2014. It usually takes Lewis' three-person crew about 1-1/2 to 2 hours to prepare a grave, but the past few months, it sometimes took twice as long.

Just finding the marker on the corner of the lot — which usually takes a couple minutes — lasted a half-hour with all of the ice and snow, which re-emerged this week.

Once the correct location is identified, the crew uses a sod cutter to outline the grave. Well, that's how they did it in previous years, anyway. This year, they broke out a concrete saw to penetrate the frozen ground.

And across town at Spring Hill Cemetery, its crew used a jackhammer.

If a headstone is already in place, Lewis said his staff remove it easily, using a hydraulic lift. Not so in January and February, when many were frozen into the ground.

"You have to take a torch to warm up the ground ... shovel a corner out and use pry rods to help lift it up and break the frost underneath," he said of the labor-intensive process. "So something that will take maybe a couple of minutes in the summertime could take up to an hour or hour and a half."

Then comes the main task — digging the grave with a backhoe. Tyler Martin, the grounds superintendent at the Woodlawn-Lincoln Cemeteries in Urbana, won't miss those many winter days when he first had to thaw out the ground with a grave burner.

The double-layered metal hood is placed over the grave. Then a propane tank is used to fill the contraption with heat. The long, half-barrel-shaped cover traps the heat and warms the ground, which then allows the hoe to break through the frost line.

"That's why in the wintertime, we have to have 48-hour notice, so we have enough time to get the grave open," Martin said.

James Rusk, a board member of the Rantoul-Ludlow Joint Cemetery District, said a grave burner had to be used four times earlier this year at its two cemeteries in the Rantoul area.

"One time, we had to burn one for 36 hours, and we still had a tough frost line that was hard to get through," he said. Those graves are dug using a track hoe.

The cost of propane more than quadrupled over the winter, Rusk said, due to high demand. "Unfortunately, those costs have to be passed on," he said.

It's also more difficult to fill a grave when the dirt is hard, say those who do it for a living.

"It's not the powdery dirt like we have during the summertime," said Martin, explaining that chunks of clay and dirt leave air pockets around the vault. Over time, the dirt settles and sinks in, requiring his crew to go back and top off the grave with more dirt to make it level with the ground.

"That's what we're doing this week," he said.

And the issues don't stop when the temperatures warm. Lewis noticed that the freeze and thaw process caused a number of headstones to sink into the ground.

His crew will spend most of the summer and fall using pea gravel to raise them back up to ground level.

Despite the extra efforts, area superintendents say they never ran into any problems they couldn't handle, and they never had to tell a grieving family a burial would be delayed.

"They're going through a difficult time as it is," Martin said. "We will do whatever it takes."

3 questions

For Patrick Lewis, grounds superintendent for Sunset Funeral Home and Memorial Park in Danville

Do caskets have to be situated in a certain way in the grave?

At Sunset, we place the caskets so the head faces the west, so they can "watch" the sun come up in the east every morning. It's also tradition to place a wife on the north side of the lot and the husband on the south.

What question about your job do you get asked most?

How can you work in such a depressing place? I always say you can look at the negative, or you can look at the positive. We try to make the memorial park a place where people can feel at ease and start the grieving process and start to heal.

A lot of people associate Sunset with the swans (Nellie and Joe). A lot of people like coming to the pond to see them. People come here to take prom pictures, homecoming pictures, senior pictures. We've even had weddings at the pond. I taught my son to ride his bike here.

Have you ever found anything while digging?

No buried treasure yet.

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