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Cold Comfort

Dead men don't need coats


Published October 29, 2008 at 5:25 a.m.

Just as winter comes and goes, so do we. But what if we go when winter comes? Vermont winters are inhospitable to all, including the dead.

Getting a deceased loved one under the ground is a priority for most people who don’t choose cremation, and it’s also a religious duty for many Jewish and Muslim families. The formalities of modern dying, such as certificates and funeral arrangements, often drag this interval out into a couple of days, but longer would be considered disrespectful to the person’s memory. So what happens when the ground is frozen and covered in snow?

Most Vermont cemeteries are closed to new burials for part of the winter, but many are extending their open periods in response to these demands. Those that are open all year — such as Stowe Cemetery — are plowed regularly, allowing fairly easy access. And penetrating the earth isn’t as hard now as it was in the old days, when corpses were saved until spring. According to Joy Fagan, president of the Vermont Cemetery Association, “The ground is not as frozen as people think. There are machines to heat the ground, but usually all you need is a jackhammer or backhoe.”

Many older cemeteries, such as Green Mount in Montpelier, are built on hills, making them inaccessible to plows. In these cases, the receiving vault comes into play. Those cute little houses, often built into the sides of slopes, house bodies whose relatives are willing to wait until spring to see them committed to the earth. While they may seem old-fashioned, these temporary catacombs are still the norm. According to several experts, Vermont has no indoor refrigeration facilities to serve this purpose. Green Mount Cemetery’s vault can hold about 60 people. Burlington’s Lakeview Cemetery houses bodies for all of Burlington, even those to be buried elsewhere. If you die in the Queen City in the winter, expect to call their gingerbread house of a vault home until spring.

Cremation, of course, is another option that knows no season. In 2005, the National Funeral Directors Association reported that nearly 40 percent of Vermont bodies were cremated. Tom Lavigne, of Lavigne Funeral Home and Cremation Services in Winooski, estimates that half his clients choose cremation. Islam and conservative Jewish sects forbid the practice, but many reform Jews choose fire over ice.

While Lavigne is quick to say that prolonged storage is not a financial hardship, families do have to pay for their loved ones’ snowy vacations. The only real price, he says, is psychological: “It’s hard for people to do it again. You get people who are restless and anxious, waiting for it to happen. Years ago, people just wanted to be notified when the burial had taken place; now graveside prayers are the norm.”

Sometimes it takes a winter of frozen purgatory for a person to rest in peace.