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Frozen hallowed ground: Digging winter graves calls for the right tool

CNA photo by ANDY GOODELL Layers: The freshly thawed ground at this grave plot at Graceland Cemetery is exposed as Bruce Hodge, superintendent of the cemetery, lifts several layers of material off the ground.
CNA photo by ANDY GOODELL Generating heat: This generator helps power the grave-thawing device at Graceland Cemetery as cemetery superintendent Bruce Hodge looks on.
CNA photo by ANDY GOODELL Testing the ground: Graceland Cemetery Superintendent Bruce Hodge tests the softness of the ground Tuesday morning. The ground is being thawed by a machine resembling an electric blanket, which makes it easier to dig graves in the winter months.

CNA staff reporter “It’s the hottest place in the summer and the coldest place in the winter,” remarked Graceland Cemetery Superintendent Bruce Hodge. While locked in Winter’s icy grip, a cemetery can be an even more humbling place to visit your loved ones. With the roads leading there covered in ice and snow that seems to never melt, just getting to Graceland Cemetery can be challenging. Digging the 80 to 100 graves each year is also hard work — especially in the winter. Hodge, a 28 year veteran of the cemetery, said he’s glad to have the right tool for the job when it comes to tilling winter graves. For the past year, he’s utilized a device that resembles an electric blanket to warm the ground before the dig even begins. “I have dug them without thawing them when we were running short on time,” he said. “It’s just a lot easier on the equipment to thaw it out first. If you’re out there digging in the frost, it’s just harder on the equipment.” Warming process It wasn’t until this week that the winter weather really started to take a toll on the ground, said Hodge. The continuous cold temperatures caused him to use the grave blanket device for the first time this winter on Monday. “We’ve gotten through everything else,” he said. “It wasn’t froze that bad before.” The device is designed to reach and sustain heat levels high enough to thaw the frozen ground. In order to make the dirt soft enough to dig, the blanket usually has to remain on one plot for 12 to 18 hours, depending on how deep the frost is. It’s able to thaw approximately 10 inches deep every four or five hours, if the conditions are favorable Hodge noted. “There’s probably 8 to 10 inches of frost right now,” said Hodge. “I’ve seen it up to 2 1/2 feet.” In the summer time, the process of preparing a grave is cut in half time-wise because the thawing process for winter graves can take nearly an entire day. At times Hodge has to run the generator all night. “We about have to,” explained Hodge. “We only get a 48-hour notice, so it only gives you one day to get it going and one day to dig it.” Although Hodge said they will use the blanket device just about any time there’s frost on the ground, he pointed out that it can really depend on where the ground is on a given day. “This frost, chances are won’t go a lot deeper right now because of the ice coating on the ground,” explained Hodge Tuesday morning. “If you get snow cover or ice cover it acts like an insulation blanket.” New tool Hodge used the “grave blanket” through last winter without any problems. It works much better than the previous grave-warming device. Hodge expressed his frustration with having to do frequent check ups on the grave blanket’s predecessor. Before purchasing the blanket-like machine, which runs on generator power and the same kind of gas you’d put in your car, Hodge used an LP gas-operated machine that looked more like a 55-gallon drum cut in half. This device was 8 feet long and came complete with a furnace. “You get the wind blowing with that LP burner and it’d blow it out,” said Hodge. “I just decided there had to be a better way.” The grave blanket has proven to be a more efficient device for Hodge, which helps him manage his time while caring for the rest of Graceland’s needs, including trying to keep the cemetery’s roadways free of impossibly thick ice this time of year. “I’ve always said this is kind of like our own little city out here,” said Hodge. “You’ve got to keep the roads open because you don’t know when the phone’s going to ring.” —————— Andy Goodell can be reached at (641) 782-2141 ext. 242 or

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