Heating chamber used to thaw ground for winter excavation
Numbing subzero temperatures and arctic winds have battened down travel and closed schools in Minnesota. Even so, Calvary Cemetery serves its clients – whatever the weather.While many families decide to postpone cremation burials until warmer weather, traditional burials are routinely done in a business-as-usual fashion.
“Basically, we never shut down,” says Terry Miller, Calvary’s Head Caretaker.
“People often ask me how we have burials when the ground is frozen solid,” he related. “Most years if we get a decent snow cover early in the winter, the ground doesn’t freeze to rock hardness. But this year it’s been more of a challenge.”
When there’s little snow cover and temps drop to the subzeros, the ground has to be thawed. For a full-size casket burial, Terry actually prepares the burial lot for excavation by heating the ground with a specialized, propane-powered heating chamber.
The chamber is a long, steel half drum with a chimney vent. It is placed over the gravesite so the site is covered with the hollow half of the drum. Inside the drum, torches are lit.
A big, 100-pound propane tank is needed to heat the ground thoroughly enough.
“It takes all night to warm up the ground,” said Terry. During windy nights, he periodically checks the heater to make sure the wind hasn’t blown out the flame. Usually, plywood sheets are propped up around the grave site to block the wind.
Once the ground is heated, a back hoe is used to remove the earth. “The steam generated by the hot soil is really incredible,” said Terry. “It makes a huge cloud.”
Occasionally Terry has to finish the excavation with a jackhammer. A jackhammer is also used to excavate for cremation urns since the heater covers an unnecessarily large surface area.