A darker, more urgent rite of spring follows the melting snow and blooming daffodils in northern New England. As the earth thaws after one of the worst winters on record, cemetery workers are rushing to bury hundreds of people who died months ago.
In tiny Van Buren, funeral director Jim Ouellette is already on the phone contacting families, getting plots readied and assigning burial times.
“It’s going to be crazy,” said Ouellette, who runs funeral homes in Van Buren and Ashland. “Fifty percent of our (annual) burials will take place in a three-week period in May.”
Ouellette has 30 delayed burials scheduled for various cemeteries in May, with 15 set for one day alone at St. Bruno’s cemetery in Van Buren.
Across the frosty northern tier of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Upstate New York, funeral directors estimate that burials for fully 80% of winter deaths must be delayed until the ground thaws.
Newspaper obituaries commonly include the phrase, “Burial will be in the spring.”
Some modern cemeteries can conduct burials throughout the winter, clearing plots with snowplows and cutting into the frozen turf with jackhammers.
But most of the tidy, older cemeteries that dot the landscape of northern New England close when the snow piles up and the ground freezes, sometimes 7 feet deep.
In Parsonsfield, a person can’t walk in the woods without stumbling across a graveyard. There are more than 100 small cemeteries here, although only five remain active. Traditionally, all close for the winter, said Diane Morrill at the town office.
May provides a brief window of burial opportunity, between the first week when most cemeteries reopen and Memorial Day, when many families make special visits of remembrance to grave sites.
Tom Flanigan, a retired English teacher, has observed the ritual of spring burial for 20 years from his home next door to St. Bruno’s.
On some days, he says, the burial ground will be almost raucous with heavy machinery digging plots, a crane hoisting concrete liner vaults from a flatbed truck into the graves, a hearse following with caskets, and another crew filling in the dirt.
Most cemeteries permit mourners to attend graveside services in the spring, but at St. Bruno’s, mourners are discouraged because services would slow up the assembly-line efficiency, Ouellette said.
“It seems to have lost the humaneness,” Flanigan said. “It’s almost a mass-production type of a thing.”
The word “necessity” comes up often when funeral directors talk about delayed burials. But the climactic realities don’t make the wait, as long as seven or eight months in some cases, any easier on mourners.
“It’s just hanging over your head. It’s unfinished business,” said Paul Tully, a funeral director in the Portland area. “It reopens old wounds. There’s nobody who will deny that.”
Through the winter, bodies are usually kept at the cemeteries in caskets placed in charnel houses, a Dickensian term for receiving vaults. The vaults offer security and natural cooling for the remains.
The whole arrangement fascinates residents of more temperate climes.
“Once you stop to think about it, it makes sense,” said James Wylie of the Florida Funeral Directors Assn.
“You just say, ‘Golly, I’m glad I don’t live there.’ ”