Icy weather making burials difficult

Deep snow, frozen ground, clogged roads complicate task

By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / February 9, 2011

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The harsh winter has made life difficult in myriad ways. Tending to the dead is no exception.

Weeks of heavy snowfall have overwhelmed graveyards across the region, clogging roads and completely covering rows of headstones. The thick layers of snow and frost have made burials far more costly and arduous, taxing understaffed town crews and forcing dozens of cemeteries to close their gates.

In Derry, N.H., officials have suspended burials for at least the next month to give exhausted workers a break and to focus manpower on clearing roads. More than 100 Jewish cemeteries across Massachusetts, shrouded under a deep blanket of snow and ice, are indefinitely closed to visitors.

“We don’t like to restrict anyone’s visitation rights,’’ said Stan Kaplan, executive director of the Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts. “But for the safety of the public, we have to do it.’’

Snow-narrowed roadways have left little room for cars to pass, and footpaths to graves are treacherous, Kaplan said.

Cemeteries in Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire are continuing to perform burials. But the heaping snow piles and deep frost have appreciably complicated the process.

“We have more than 18 inches of frost, and you have to jack-hammer certain spots to get through,’’ said Michael Fowler, director of public works in Derry. “It just reached a point where the effort was just too great.’’

Fowler estimated that digging graves this winter takes three times as much effort as under normal conditions.

Burial specialists said cemeteries in much of northern New England, particularly small, rural towns, suspend burials during winter. Bodies are kept in cold storage facilities until the spring thaw.

In Massachusetts, burials continue through the harshest winters, though at great toil and expense.

“Every cemetery in the Commonwealth is doing everything in its power, often with small crews,’’ said Thomas Daly, a cemetery consultant in Westwood. “They are doing what they have to do.’’

Before digging through frozen ground, crews first have to find gravesites amid all the snow and then clear a plot without damaging headstones of great personal, and sometimes historic, value.

“With all these storms, it’s tough,’’ said Angela Snell, who oversees Mountain View Cemetery in Shrewsbury, where 3 feet of snow covers all but the tallest headstones.

“The roads are narrow, the piles are high,’’ she said. “But we’re still open for business.’’

Like many towns, Shrewsbury has limited resources for maintaining graveyards, with just two town employees responsible for the 40-acre tract, Snell said.

In Arlington, three full-time employees and one part-timer are charged with clearing Mt. Pleasant Cemetery.

Manpower is down, like anywhere else,’’ said Jean Smith, a senior clerk at the cemetery. “But we certainly are digging.’’

In Boston, crews have hammered through a foot of frost and heaved aside heaps of snow to dig fresh graves at its three active municipal cemeteries and have worked to keep main pathways clear, a city spokeswoman said. At Forest Hills Cemetery, staff members said that with hard work and the right machinery, even frozen ground gives way.

Mitchell Zakrzewski, director of cemetery operations, said: “It is more work to get to the gravesite, but we haven’t been stymied at all.’’

David Walkinshaw, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Funeral Directors Association, said cemeteries must go to great lengths to perform burials in the deep of winter, but that families typically are anxious to lay the departed to rest.

“Waiting can be difficult on the family,’’ he said. “It kind of puts everything on hold.’’

In Derry, the cemetery is now storing two bodies because of the delay. Fowler said that while the delay is regrettable, officials concluded that they had no other choice.

“It’s been a really rough winter, and you have to prioritize,’’ Fowler said. “We just don’t have the ability to staff this appropriately, and roads and sidewalks have to take precedence.’’

Peter Schworm can be reached at