Dead Houses: Burying the Dead in Frozen Ground

Have you ever wondered how it is possible to dig a 6ft grave when the ground is frozen solid? In the dead of winter, what do we do with our dead?

* Headline image via Calle Eklund 

Imagine yourself guiding a funeral procession down a narrow, icy cemetery road during a cold, northern winter. The procession watches intently as you begin placing the casket over the grave, praying you don’t slip. Sounds…fun, right? For those of us who live in northern areas, such as Canada and the northern United States, we are no stranger to the long winter months of frozen, snow covered ground. But have you ever wondered how it is possible to dig a 6ft grave when the ground is frozen solid? In the dead of winter, what do we do with our dead? The answer: dead houses.

Our Editor, Mandy, used to work as a pallbearer and coach driver in the province of Ontario, and she can attest with certainty that winter burials can be gruelling. Today, people in Canada, and some Northern States, use machinery from backhoes to jackhammers, and even propane powered grave warmers to soften the ground. Interestingly, before modern technology, cemeteries would keep the bodies until spring in either barns or specifically built structures such as receiving vaults, or Dead Houses. The design of these structures varies from location and time period. 

 Dead Houses generally included wall niches to hold the coffins, and a sturdy lock on the door to keep out grave robbers. 

The earliest forms of receiving vaults were simple underground chambers dug out of hills. As time went on, their design became a bit more complex with some even sharing a space with a chapel in the cemetery. Dead Houses generally included wall niches to hold the coffins, and a sturdy lock on the door to keep out grave robbers. Dead Houses, also called Mort Houses, Corpse-Houses, or Charnel Houses, are similar structures. They are often simple in design, and look similar to the shed in your backyard. In the mid to late 19th century 8-sided Octagon Dead Houses became popular in Ontario, Canada. Fun fact: you can still visit these Dead Houses in Canada today




Though some of these structures are now used to store shovels instead of corpses, there are many communities that still use Dead Houses. To learn more, we sat down with Robyn S. Lacy from Spade & Grave to dig deeper into Winter Burials in Canada. Robyn is an archaeologist, death scholar, archaeological illustrator, burial ground conservator, and heritage consultant. You can read more about her research on her website, or follow her on twitter @robyn-la.

Dead Houses: Burying the Dead in Frozen Ground – Interview with Robyn

Dead Houses

A dead house in Hopedale, Labrador. (Jarvis 1995. From the Memorial University of Newfoundland-Intangible Cultural Heritage Inventory). via spadeandthegrave.com

Could you give us a bit of an overview of what your research is on, and how you got started?

I guess I’d summarize by saying my research is on death and burial in colonial North America. I have a couple different topics I’m working on right now: winter burials, 17th-century burial landscapes, and protective hexes on gravestones, and a few others. I got started down this path when I attended my first archaeological field school in 2011, through the University of Liverpool, in Ireland and on the Isle of Man. We were surveying burial grounds in Ireland as part of the 6-week project, and I fell in love! I’ve always been interested in archaeology though, and I basically decided to become an archaeologist when I was in grade 1, and never really changed my mind!




Why are winter burials different in colder locations, such as areas in Canada and the Northern United States?

Well, the main reason has to do with the ground being able to freeze solid or not! Before machinery like backhoes were used to dig graves all year round, it was extremely difficult to bury the dead during the winter. They would often have to store the dead somewhere cold until the ground thawed and the graves could be dug in the spring, and at many sites this storage place came in the form of a purpose-built structure known as a receiving tomb or a dead house. In New England, along the northeast coast in Canada, Newfoundland, Labrador, through Ontario, and much of the rest of Canada, dead houses were used to store the dead until a grave could be dug for them. It’s one of a few different techniques, but definitely the most common. 

dead houses

Queensville Dead House via spadeandthegrave.com

In Colonial Canada, how did the early settlers deal with their dead during winter?

Things really haven’t changed much at all, actually! Dead houses to keep the bodies during the winter were used at least from the late 18th century to the present day in parts of Canada, and in other areas, graves would be dug near homes where the ground was warmer, under piles of wood that had kept the ground insulated, and in some parts of Newfoundland, fires were set in the burial grounds to thaw the subsoil before digging the graves. All of these practices continued for hundreds of years!




How do these practices compare to other cultures in Europe?

My research so far has only really looked at the British Isles and Northeast North America, but dead houses were used across these areas. In the UK, however, they were more used for protecting the deceased from body snatchers, or Resurrectionists, in the early 1800s. Much of the UK and Ireland doesn’t get down to the freezing temps that we have in Canada, so it wasn’t so much of an issue for them. In Iceland, however, the dead would sometimes be kept in unheated barns on remote farms during the winter, to be buried on the family’s property come the spring. 

How has this practice evolved to today in Canada or in the United States?

With the advent of modern machinery, we can dig a grave any time of the year, basically regardless of weather conditions. However, some areas might not have the money to afford digging equipment or simply didn’t see the need to change from their old practices, and dead houses are still used to this day. This includes sites in Newfoundland, Labrador, and Ontario that I’m aware of! 

dead houses

UK Mort House from the 1800s via Martyn Gorman

What are the modern practices of Winter Burial?

Today, most places don’t have to wait until the spring thaw to bury their dead because of modern machinery, but dead houses are still in use in areas where they can’t get the excavators … or that weird looking grave-warmer. Google it! 

Are there any communities that still use Dead Houses in Canada or the United States?

Yup! I’m not sure about the USA yet though, but I’m sure there are. There are several communities in Newfoundland and Labrador, and Ontario, that I’m certain of at least, that still use dead houses but I’m sure the practice is still more widespread than we think.




Any recommendations for further reading?

Definitely! I’d recommend The Archaeology of American Cemeteries and Gravemarkers by Baugher and Veit, A Better Place by Susan Smart, Bereavement and Commemoration by Sarah Tarlow. Also Circe by Madeline Miller, because it is an astounding novel and I want to talk about it with everyone! 


Robyn S. Lacy

Robyn S. Lacy, an archaeologist, death scholar, archaeological illustrator, burial ground conservator, and heritage consultant.

Posted by TalkDeath

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