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Minnesota is experiencing some of its coldest temps in almost 20 years. My phone is showing -20 degrees F right now, with windchills between -40 and -50. Meteorologists literally are calling this a “polar vortex.”

In Sunday’s Mankato Free Press, Tim Krohn wrote an article about people who have to work outside in these conditions. He started the story with my pal, Mankato gravedigger Dale VanThuyne. Dale gives some good insights on what it takes to dig a grave in these conditions:

You might want to avoid the “gravely cold” jokes around Dale VanThuyne these days.

The Mankato area gravedigger has already had more than his fill of winter weather this season.

“I was going through frost in November already. For December we had more frost than normal. It’s 16 inches or so.”

Like other workers who have to be out in the elements, he has some special tools. A jack hammer can be attached to his skid loader to chip through frozen soil, and he recently bought a propane-fired burner that is the exact size of a grave.

“I let it run overnight and it’ll burn most of the frost out straight down. But it’s expensive with $85 (worth) of propane, so I don’t like to do it if I don’t have to,” VanThuyne said.

While the frost is deep all over, he dreads the jobs in windswept rural cemeteries with no insulating snow cover.

“I had one a couple of years ago that had 45 inches of frost.”

If this were Dale, he'd be wearing a parka and hat and gloves and probably Carhartt overalls. Source: Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:TVA_Douglas_Dam_jack_hammer.gif

If this were Dale, he’d be wearing a parka and hat and gloves and probably Carhartt overalls. Source: Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:TVA_Douglas_Dam_jack_hammer.gif

Jackhammers, propane heaters and two, three, sometimes even close to four feet of frost. Fun!
Back when Dad was digging graves, cemetery associations/boards decided whether or not to permit winter burials. Many did not. From a cemetery standpoint, it’s hard to dig in the winter and chopping through the frozen ground with big, heavy equipment could do some serious damage to property. Many cemeteries had vaults in which the caskets and bodies were kept until the ground thawed. Come April, Dad was busy with “spring burials.”
You can see where most families would prefer, for closure’s sake, to inter the deceased as soon as possible. In 1993, the Minnesota Legislature passed statute 306.99, titled “Winter Burials.” It states: “Each municipal, town, or other cemetery governed by this chapter or other law shall, so far as possible, provide for burials at all times of year including winter. A cemetery may make an additional charge for the actual cost of a burial during difficult weather.”
Which means poor Dale and other gravediggers have to work, even in this cold stretch.
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