When Winter’s Worst is No Problem

By: Steve Cronin (Reprinted from American Cemetery & Cremation Magazine, January 2016, with permission of Kates-Boylston Publications.)

You’d think the prospect of dealing with 10 feet of snow during one short winter month would have a cemetery operator worried. However, Fred Lappin doesn’t spend too much time fretting about what will happen if last year’s record snowfalls hit his cemeteries in Massachusetts again this year.

“One tends to worry when one is not prepared, when you don’t know what to expect,” said Lappin, CEO of Knollwood Cemetery Corp., which operates two cemeteries in eastern Massachusetts. “We have personnel and protocols in place that help us be ready.”

When 10 feet of snow fell in his area in February, Lappin’s two cemeteries managed 95 burials during the 28-day period – an indication of how having a plan can help cemeteries cope with the worst that Mother Nature may throw at them.

That’s not to say operating a cemetery in winter is easy – it’s not, particularly as you head north where winters are longer, colder and more challenging.

But those who do spend three or four months each year handling snowfall, frozen ground and slippery patches of ice have years of experience dealing with the weather and how to keep operations flowing smoothly and visitors safe.

“All of us … know that winter presents certain challenges which are different than any other time of the year,” Lappin said. “But at the end of the day, people are still dying. It is our responsibility, regardless of external conditions, to help families.”

The key to helping those families is planning – both in advance of the season and while handling cases on a day-to-day basis, cemetery operators say.

Lappin is responsible for running Sharon Memorial Park in Sharon, Massachusetts, and the adjacent Knollwood Memorial Park in Canton. The two cemeteries cover a total of 340 acres overseen by a grounds staff of 18 people and one supervisor.

Lappin and his crews start preparing for cold weather “about the time the leaves start to fall off the trees.”

This means preparing in fall for the inevitable northern snowfalls. In memorial parks, where markers are flush with the ground, a blanket of snow makes it difficult to navigate the cemetery and locate a specific spot. To make finding gravesites easier, Lappin’s staff uses about 2,000 wooden stakes to mark the cemeteries’ rows of graves. The stakes stand about 4 feet tall – good enough for most winters, but not for last year’s record-breaking levels.

The Tribute Companies, which operates four cemeteries in Wisconsin, also uses snow stakes to help crews navigate a snow-covered landscape. For Tribute workers, the fall is also time to put up signs at cemetery entrances and send out email blasts asking visitors to exercise caution when ice and snow cover the ground, said company president Christine Toson Hentges.

“The safety of our customers is a priority,” said Toson Hentges, whose company operates Pinelawn Memorial Park in Milwaukee, Restlawn Memorial Park in Wausau, Fort Howard Memorial Park in Green Bay and the Gardens of StoneBank cemetery in Stone Bank.

For Lappin’s staff, one of the first things they keep in mind is that weather does affect how quickly they can do their work. While the cemeteries can handle 10 to 12 burials on a busy day during spring, summer or fall, during a cold, snowy winter staff will restrict burials to four or five per day.

“It’s just because of the amount of time it takes to get graves dug and prepared,” Lappin said. A process that might take 30 minutes on a normal day – finding the grave, making sure it is the correct space, clearing snow off the area and a place for mourners to congregate, and then digging the grave and putting in a liner can take as many as three to four hours.

In Wisconsin, where the average annual snowfall is 55 inches and the average daily low in January is 1 degree, opening graves in winter can be a challenge, Toson Hentges said.

During winter months, Tribute Companies’ cemeteries require advance notice and charge an additional fee after Dec. 1 to cover the increased manpower and equipment costs. In the dead of winter, crews must use a machine to thaw the ground and special digging tools to get through the frozen soil.

“Funeral directors can’t call in on Tuesday and have a grave prepared Wednesday, though in other seasons we could accommodate that,” Toson Hentges said.

The company makes sure to get the word out at the start of winter about the scheduling and rate changes, posting notices at its cemeteries, on their websites and sending out email blasts.

If a burial is scheduled during a snowstorm, cemetery staff must also figure for time needed to plow roads so the hearse and visitors’ cars can make it to the gravesite.

Over time, Lappin’s staff has accumulated a good collection of snow removal equipment. This includes trucks fitted with snowplows and sanders and tractors “with huge snow blowers on the front,” he said.

These snow blowers allow the crew to remove snow from a grave area in about 10 minutes without damaging the turf or the memorial markers. This is a big improvement over the cemetery’s past practices of using a backhoe to clear the area, which sometimes resulted in damage to the turf or the markers. Such damage results in additional costs for the cemetery, which must make good on repairs, Lappin said.

When plowing roads, staff must determine where to place the piles of snow. This isn’t a simple decision when you’re dealing with house-sized piles of the white stuff.

“You never know where the next grave is going to need to be dug. If you have a 20-foot pile of snow there, you have a problem,” Lappin said. Although Lappin’s staff prepares areas for storing snow, he does admit that with all the snow that was piling up by the end of last February, “it was a real challenge.”

While the cemetery doesn’t use salt on turf areas – it would damage the grass – workers do put down sand.

This, however, can cause other problems. Visitors expect cemetery offices and facilities to be spotless, which can be difficult when people are walking in with snow- and sand-covered boots, Toson Hentges said.

“We are always trying to come up with the right formula to keep things as neat as possible, but there is no magic formula,” she said.

Sand, salt and melted snow can also create slippery conditions on marble floors at the cemetery’s chapels, a hazard staff work quickly to deal with, Toson Hentges said.

Cemetery operators say they are sometimes surprised that the public expects them to not only clear the roadways and the spots for new burials but also the entire cemetery.

This doesn’t happen. However, while visitorship does tend to drop in the winter, particularly during the worst of winter’s weather, cemeteries do realize they have an obligation to families who want to visit the graves of loved ones.

“We probably get more visitors than you would think,” Toson Hentges said. “There is a steady pattern of traffic. Visitors do come out, particularly on the anniversary of a death or a birthday. These happen during the winter, too, so people are here.”

While cemetery staff ask people to notify them if they are planning to visit, and will clear a path to a grave to accommodate them, some simply show up and trudge through the snow on their own, she said.

“They know they should be cautious when they are out,” she said. “Still, we have had pretty significant issues with people slipping and falling.”

Cemetery operators don’t always hear about the incidents right away, Toson Hentges said. Sometimes, people will come to the office on a Monday, for instance, to report a slip and fall that happened over the weekend. This poses the difficulties of verifying the accident occurred at the cemetery.

At such times, staff will discuss the cemeteries’ winter operations and if there is anything they can do to reduce the risk for visitors.

“We all talk about it. Do we close our gates? Do we restrict our hours? The basic conclusion is … (visitors) have to use caution and logic,” she said.

“I guess for anyone who runs a cemetery, that is something that is always in the back of our mind,” Lappin said. “We don’t want people wandering around in the cold. We are always conscious of people’s welfare and well-being.”

At Lappin’s two cemeteries, staff ask visitors to contact them ahead of time so snow can be cleared from the area they’d like to visit. They post this message on the cemeteries’ websites and in the office. Still, the word doesn’t always get out.

“Sometimes we find people who have come out on their own for a visit and trudged their own way out to a grave. We will tell them ‘Hey, next time let us know,’ but that’s about all we can do,” he said.

And while visitation does drop off during the cold months, cemeteries do try to encourage people to come out, particularly during the holidays.

At Knollwood, staff set up luminary bags in the huge mall in the front of the cemetery. About 2,000 people attend the annual December event. Attendees who have family in the cemetery are given a sticker with the person’s name on it. They then go out and pick a bag to represent their loved one.

“It’s another reason to get people out to the cemetery. It might be cold, but people come out, and it’s a happier reason to visit,” Lappin said.