- The Washington Times - Monday, May 10, 2004

FAIRBANKS, Alaska (AP) — As the spring thaw softens ground that has been frozen hard as granite by the long Alaska winter, cemeteries start burying people who died during the past seven months.

Since October, when digging became difficult, many of Alaska’s dead have been in storage. Now, families finally are able to inter their loved ones in a somber Far North rite of spring.

“It’s around Memorial Day when we go down six feet,” said David Erickson, cemetery manager of Northern Lights Mortuary and Memorial Park in Fairbanks. “We’ll start earlier for infants and urns.”

Burials started May 3 at Birch Hill cemetery, said Dave Jacoby, public works director for the city, which operates the cemetery. Birch Hill had 22 delayed burials to perform.

Winter temperatures can fall to 40 below zero, sometimes lower, at Fairbanks, in Alaska’s interior.

“The ground is so hard we’d be digging a grave for three days,” Mr. Jacoby said.

Even in places with milder climates, such as Anchorage, many cemeteries close in the fall because of frozen ground.

But even in Alaska, winter burials are still common outside the bigger cities.

“Why wait? We live in the cold and snow and ice. It seems barbaric to store them above ground and wait until springtime,” said Shirley Demientieff, who buried her grandmother, Mary, in the village of Nenana in January.

After the snow was cleared from her grandmother’s grave site, fires were used to thaw the ground, Miss Demientieff said.

Mr. Erickson said Northern Lights once tried using steam to thaw a grave site, but it cost more than most families could afford.

The Rev. Scott Fisher of the 1,200-member St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Fairbanks said he disagrees with the practice of storing bodies over the winter because the flow of a service from church to graveside is psychologically important for grieving families.

“The sound of the earth on the casket — ka-thud — breaks through some of the shock and the grief,” he said.

Mr. Fisher will hold services at two spring burials this year. Other members of his congregation who died during the winter already have been buried in villages outside Fairbanks.

Mr. Fisher said he holds a special graveside service because of the time that has passed.

“You’ve got to go back into the moment. We have to put ourselves where we were when the funeral service ended,” he said.

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