A national cemetery turns to precast concrete to ease burgeoning demands for burial space.
By Leslie Lichtenburg
An aging veteran population and an increase in cemetery expansions are compelling national cemeteries to consider alternative burial systems. Such is the case at Fort Snelling National Cemetery in Minneapolis, where a major expansion program to create space for an additional 21,000 burials is under way.
The growing demand for veteran burials and the need for a system to accommodate and expedite burials during the winter months are driving the trend in pre-placed precast concrete burial vaults. These enclosed chambers are installed in quantity, either side-by-side or multiple depth. The precast units, also known as lawn crypts, offer a more cost-effective option for burial with two caskets placed in one grave with a divider between them. The use of such pre-placed vaults is becoming popular in both national and private cemeteries as an efficient means of expanding cemetery capacity while at the same time conserving space.
“Using pre-placed crypts saves space, opens land and enables us to do more burials for veterans and their dependents,” explained Don Edmond, assistant director at the 436-acre Fort Snelling National Cemetery.
Until now, the Fort Snelling Cemetery relied on a system whereby graves were pre-dug for winter burials, and tree leaves – donated by the city – were used as backfill. “It was easy to dig up the leaves in winter and install the liners and caskets,” explained Dave Starkie of the Veterans Affairs (VA) Office of Facility Management in Washington, D.C.
Today, the use of pre-placed precast concrete caskets is considered a reliable solution to the increasing demand for winter burials. “With pre-placed caskets you need only a maximum of 18 inches of soil on top of the crypt, which means that during the winter, that soil can be easily scraped off, the lid lifted and the remains interred,” said Starkie.
The third-largest of the nation’s 120 veterans cemeteries, Fort Snelling averages 18 to 19 burials a day, and sometimes as many as 25 to 30. With approximately 100 acres still to be developed and the pace of its burial rate showing no signs of slowing, the cemetery embarked on an ambitious expansion program in late spring of 2003. The project was designed by architects Sanders Wacker Bergly Inc. of St. Paul, Minn., and engineered by Sebesta Blomberg and Associates of Roseville, Minn. “It was a very unique project, and somewhat of a challenge in that we were dealing with a vast area in which to place these vaults,” said Bill Sanders of Sanders Wacker Bergly. “Still, there would be many applications for this type of burial system. Because it is so efficient, in terms of land use, it is possible to adapt the use of pre-placed vaults to many different types of situations,” he added.
The precast burial vault forms were engineered and fabricated by Wieser Concrete Products of Maiden Rock, Wis., which has been making precast concrete products for nearly 40 years. Frontier Construction of Deer River, Minn., served as general contractor. “Although we had a lot of experience with precast concrete structures, we had never done a project like this before,” said Jeff Tilden, project manager for Frontier. “It was challenging, but with good communication and the right people on the job, we were able to meet the project’s very tight timeline.”
Land preparation and excavation involved three sections of the cemetery comprising approximately seven acres. More than 100,000 yards of material were excavated and relocated to accommodate the crypts – averaging 10 to 12 feet deep – and the final grading. Following excavation, a drain field, piping and a collection system were put in place, and 8 inches of gravel bed was laid for a foundation on which to place the crypts. The crypts, placed 1 inch apart on the sides and 6 inches apart at the head, were set and backfilled with pea gravel and then numbered. Cover material consisted of a blend of 3 inches of sand and 1 inch of common material, topped with 4 inches of black dirt.
“Maintaining spacing was the hardest part of the job because it was critical to the alignment of the headstones,” said Tilden. “Sustaining the elevation was also a challenge.”
Approximately 10,500 single-cavity burial vaults were required for the project, a tall order given the project’s budgetary constraints and short time frame. “In terms of labor, we needed to be very efficient in order to produce these vaults,” explained Andy Wieser, president of Wieser Concrete Products Inc., the precast manufacturer for the project. To meet the goals of the project, Wieser Engineering and Manufacturing Inc., the form manufacturing division of Wieser Concrete, developed a twin-cavity burial vault system, which enabled the crew to produce two castings, or 156 vaults, a day. All of the vaults were double-depth and some were double-width, which also sped up construction. Production of the vaults began in late July, delivery to the job site commenced one month later and the contract was completed by Nov. 6.
In addition to expediting production, Wieser’s unique forming system created a stronger, more durable product. “These molds have a thin wall with very little relief,” explained Wieser. “It’s tough to strip them without causing cracks or other damage.” To overcome these challenges, Wieser employed a pneumatic engineering system that is also more labor efficient. Actual installation of the vaults was also streamlined since loading and handling of vault pieces were minimized and leveling and setting times were faster.
With installation of the vaults now complete, the Fort Snelling National Cemetery expansion is on hold until final grading, roadways and installation of an irrigation system is complete. The $6 million project, when completed, will encompass 22 acres of land, portions of which will also be developed for standard burial sites. The pre-placed burial crypts comprise about one-third of the total project area.
Precast concrete pre-placed burial vaults are a cost-effective, efficient method for cemetery expansions that also reduce the amount of on-site excavation. VA’s approval of the twin-cavity design system signifies the need for both public and private cemeteries to adapt existing land to meet the growing need for burial space.
Project Name: Fort Snelling National Cemetery, Minneapolis
Owner: Department of Veterans Affairs
Contractor: Frontier Construction, Deer River, Minn.
Architect: Sanders Wacker Bergly Inc., St. Paul, Minn.
Engineer: Sebesta Blomberg & Associates, Roseville, Minn.
Precast Manufacturer: Wieser Concrete Products Inc., Maiden Rock, Wis.*
* Wieser Concrete Products Inc. is a certified plant under NPCA’s Quality Assurance/Plant Certification program.