In N. Dakota, winter death can mean spring burial

8:52 PM, Apr 9, 2011   |    comments
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BISMARCK, N.D. -- Christ Merck has been dead since December, and his funeral was held just after the New Year. But he may not achieve his final rest for another month.

The 85-year-old farmer's burial has been delayed by North Dakota's usual bitter winter, which every year requires funeral directors in mostly smaller cities around the state to cache bodies in cemetery crypts or funeral homes until the snow melts and the frozen ground thaws enough to dig a grave.

Mortuary officials say the delayed burials draw out out the mourning process for those left behind. For Christ Merck, that includes his sister Jean Feist, 74, who expects her brother to be buried "maybe in May" at a cemetery in the tiny northwest North Dakota town of Karlsruhe, where the bachelor farmed his entire life.

"It's like having two funerals," Feist said. "It's very emotional but we had no choice."

Dale Niewoehner, president of North Dakota's Board of Funeral Service, said hundreds of burials are suspended each year at some cemeteries in the state after the snow flies. He called the delayed burials a "necessary evil" in North Dakota, a state that rivals any for brutal winter weather.

"It's just how it is here," said Niewoehner, who owns a funeral home in Rugby, in north-central North Dakota.

Deep snow makes it nearly impossible to find grave locations and buries headstones, which could be damaged by backhoes and other grave-digging equipment, funeral directors say. And roads leading to cemeteries also would have to be plowed, an expense that neither the cemetery owners nor families can afford.

Other snowy states face similar challenges and at least three -- Minnesota, Wisconsin and New York -- require winter burials. But funeral directors in North Dakota say such a law would be impractical for the hundreds of tiny, rural cemeteries scattered throughout the sparsely populated state.

Instead, the bodies are kept in storage areas until the winter weather passes, with caskets clearly marked so there is no mix-up, funeral directors say.

Wes Burkart, an owner and funeral director at the Thompson-Larson Funeral Home in Minot, said his funeral home has as many as 70 delayed spring burials each year. This year, there are about 40 pending interments, including that of his mother-in-law, who died last month.

"Having a family go through a second service and having them waiting and waiting can be very difficult," Burkart said. "I hate to use the term `unfinished business' but that's what it is."

Eddy Bergeron, funeral director at the Everson Funeral Home in Williston, said he can remember only about 20 burials that had to be postponed because of winter weather in the past two decades.

"We push our gravediggers," Bergeron said. "We bury as often as we can."

In Mandan, commissioners increased winter burial rates last year at the city-owned cemetery from $550 to $650, in part to help pay for a jackhammer to break up frozen ground at the town's sole cemetery.

Other cemeteries dig ahead of time.

About 60 graves and two dozen smaller holes for cremated remains are prepared before winter weather sets in at the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery south of Mandan.

"We start pre-digging in the fall," said Philip Miller, cemetery director. "It's so the family only has to deal with it one time. Holding it until spring causes more emotions and more stress for a family to come back the second time.

"It gives them that closure if you can do it right away," Miller said

That was the aim when Minnesota passed its law nearly 20 years ago requiring winter burials, said Tim Koch, with the Minnesota Department of Health's Mortuary Science section.

"There should be a good-faith effort in getting the winter burials done," Koch said.

The law requires winter burial "so far as possible" and allows cemeteries to charge extra "during difficult weather." Despite the law, cold and snow still blocks some winter burials in Minnesota.

"In some cases, it's not possible for some cemeteries that don't have the manpower or equipment to thaw the ground," Koch said.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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