- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 15, 2014

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) - When a blizzard shut down schools, government agencies and businesses across the state on Jan. 6, Patrick Lewis and two assistants were on the job at Sunset Funeral Home and Memorial Park by dawn, making sure a local resident could receive a proper burial.

Fortunately, the grounds superintendent of the Danville cemetery and his crew had already dug the grave and covered it with several sheets of plywood before the snow started falling. But they still had to plow the funeral home parking lot and salt the path to the cemetery chapel in time for visitation.

Illinois’ fourth coldest winter on record has been especially brutal on cemetery crews, who have had to dig through a deeper-than-usual frost line - 21/2 feet in some areas - to prepare for burials. Among other cold-related challenges.

“If a family wants to have services,” Lewis said, “we still have to have the services.”

Sunset has had 55 burials in 2014. It usually takes Lewis‘ three-person crew about 1-1/2 to 2 hours to prepare a grave, but the past few months, it sometimes took twice as long.

Just finding the marker on the corner of the lot - which usually takes a couple minutes - lasted a half-hour with all of the ice and snow, which re-emerged this week.

Once the correct location is identified, the crew uses a sod cutter to outline the grave. Well, that’s how they did it in previous years, anyway. This year, they broke out a concrete saw to penetrate the frozen ground.

And across town at Spring Hill Cemetery, its crew used a jackhammer.

If a headstone is already in place, Lewis said his staff remove it easily, using a hydraulic lift. Not so in January and February, when many were frozen into the ground.

“You have to take a torch to warm up the ground … shovel a corner out and use pry rods to help lift it up and break the frost underneath,” he said of the labor-intensive process. “So something that will take maybe a couple of minutes in the summertime could take up to an hour or hour and a half.”

Then comes the main task - digging the grave with a backhoe. Tyler Martin, the grounds superintendent at the Woodlawn-Lincoln Cemeteries in Urbana, won’t miss those many winter days when he first had to thaw out the ground with a grave burner.

The double-layered metal hood is placed over the grave. Then a propane tank is used to fill the contraption with heat. The long, half-barrel-shaped cover traps the heat and warms the ground, which then allows the hoe to break through the frost line.

“That’s why in the wintertime, we have to have 48-hour notice, so we have enough time to get the grave open,” Martin said.

James Rusk, a board member of the Rantoul-Ludlow Joint Cemetery District, said a grave burner had to be used four times earlier this year at its two cemeteries in the Rantoul area.

“One time, we had to burn one for 36 hours, and we still had a tough frost line that was hard to get through,” he said. Those graves are dug using a track hoe.

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