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Interesting Information - Winter Cemetery Burials
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Cemeteries may provide valuable information about your ancestors. The amount of information you glean from a cemetery is dependent on many variables. The following information is not going to help in your research but it is an interesting tidbit about the history of burials in America.

While visiting Greenwood Cemetery in Rockford, Winnebago co, Illinois, I observed a very large semi-underground structure built into a hill and covered with ground. I pondered on what it could possibly be and I thought that perhaps it was a less expensive version of a mausoleum. Nice guess - but I was wrong.

I stopped one of the ground's keepers and asked him what the structure was. In a matter of fact way - he said "It is where they used to store the bodies of those who died in the winter when the ground was too hard to dig the hole for the coffin and vault. In the spring, after the thaw, they would bring out the bodies and proceed to bury them in the ground."

By the way, they no longer use the "dead houses" for dead body storage. They now use the building for storage of other necessities to running a cemetery operation.

That's interesting. I went home and searched online. In New York, the structures are often referred to as "Dead Houses". Now that is a bit more morbid, but it confirmed that the practice has been in existence for a very long time.

That explained what people did in large cemeteries. I often found "dead houses" in the larger cemeteries but what about the little country cemeteries? How did they bury their dead in the winter? Or, where did they store them while waiting for the cooperation of the ground being soft enough to dig?

This needed further investigation. While traveling in Freeport, Stephenson county, Illinois, I stopped at a monument company. I asked the receptionist who worked at the front desk. Since she had worked there many years, I thought she would know but she sent me outside to talk to the crew who actually dug the graves. I talked with two nice, polite men who looked a big gruffy for the wear and tear of the physically exhausting job.

The grave digger told me that ages ago the pioneers would take a metal barrel and slice it lengthwise in half. They would then lay the barrel in the spot of ground they needed to thaw, fill it with embers and hot material and as they kept the fire and heat going, it would gradually thaw the ground. When it had thawed a few inches down they would lift the barrel out and dig the ground til it was again hard. Then they put the heater back in and proceeded to again heat and thaw. This procedure would continue until the hole was deep enough to proceed with the burial.

I then asked Diane (manager of Greenwood cemetery of Rockford, Illinois,) about what the new more advanced procedure currently was. Diane said it hasn't changed much. They still use a barrel-like container that heats up and thaws the earth. The container runs on petroleum instead of hot embers but in essence it works the same. Of course, they also have backhoes and other equipment which help a great deal. But apparently, winter burials are still a difficult procedure.

As I was driving by Sunset Memorial Gardens (in Machesney Park, Winnebago county, Illinois), I saw a strange looking object lying on the ground, smoke was billowing out from its small chimney. I was excited and drove into the cemetery to get a closer look and a picture to share with others. Timing is everything, in a month, or so, they will once again be put into storage - til next year - when our Midwest ground freezes solid. Truth is, it is rare to actually see them cooking the earth so the dearly departed bodies can be finally put to rest.

Connie Eccles
Genealogist Enthusiast
Family History Consultant
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