Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Some Massachusetts cemeteries have had to halt burials in the snowbound state.
No matter the circumstances, burying a loved one is an enormous emotional challenge. Right now in Boston, which has collected more than 100 inches of snow since late January, it's also a physical one.
"This has not been an easy winter," says Bill Hewitt, general manager of the Boston Catholic Cemetery Association, which operates four cemeteries in the metro area. One of them is strictly historic, meaning it doesn't accept new burials, and been left unplowed. But at the other three locations, Hewitt says his staff has been able to meet all burial requests in a normal timeframe, barring the days that there have been travel bans (in those cases, they've been able to dig the grave within a day or two).
That's impressive. The winter months are always the busiest time in the funeral industry, and Hewitt says this year has been particularly packed.
"Just for February, we did 20 more burials that we did last year, and that was more last year than the previous year," says Hewitt. "But we've still managed to perform every burial that was brought to us."
Burying a body under eight-odd feet of snow is no simple task. First, you have to plow a pathway from the cemetery road all the way to the gravesite, which, at the cemeteries Hewitt oversees, can be up to 300 feet in.
Then, to overcome two to three feet of ground frost that's accumulated due to the region's relatively sudden snow dump, workers use a jackhammer to drill open the ground, much like you would on a paved street. Then they start digging the grave as usual.
Under these conditions, says Hewitt, preparing a burial site—which normally takes about 90 minutes—takes anywhere from four to five hours.
It's the same at the municipally operated cemeteries in Boston, where diggers have been working overtime to accomplish these challenging burials in a timely manner. "Families have been really grateful that our workers are putting in so much effort to prepare the grave sites for their loved ones," says Ryan Woods, director of external affairs for Boston's Parks and Recreations Department.
But outside of Boston, in smaller towns with fewer resources, older cemeteries, and even more snow, burials can be impossible. In some places, they completely cease from around Christmas until April.
"This has always been a challenge in New England," says Rick Mansfield, director of Miles Funeral Home in Holden, Massachusetts. "At some of the older cemeteries, grave records go back to 1700 or 1800s, and the locations can be really inaccurate. So if they make a mistake while trying to open a [new] grave under a ton of snow, they're really in trouble."
Plus, not all towns have the jackhammers and plows to spare for burials—or for clearing pathways for funeral attendees. "The roads in our cemeteries are very narrow, and we generally don't plow them," says Elaine Gauthier, Cemetery Commissioner of Hubbardston, Massachusetts.
So every year, some Massachusetts towns—including Sterling, Hubbardston, and Holden—opt to postpone burials until spring, when they have a clearer picture of what grave sites are where, and when funerals can be more safely conducted. This is even more common further north in New England, in states like Maine.
Where do the bodies go? Until the advent of funeral homes at the turn of the 20th century, it was up to cemeteries to house the bodies while awaiting burials in stone-walled "receiving tombs." Nowadays, a handful of regional funeral homes and cemeteries share the responsibility, mostly using refrigerated facilities—although Holden's Grove Cemetery still uses its old receiving tomb to house bodies from that town and others nearby.
Despite the fact that postponements have been common practice in many these towns, it's still not easy for families to accept when it's their loved one lying cold. "It's a hardship for funeral homes explain this to families," says Mansfield. "It's not easy to have to go through this experience again in the springtime."
Mansfield says he's observed an unusual number of postponements during this ferocious Massachusetts winter, though Margaret Nolan, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Funeral Directors Association, says that most delays are relatively short—no more than a day or two—and have been due more to travel bans than a lack of burial capacity.
Kind of makes cremation—already on the rise—sound like a more attractive option.