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LET'S BRING BURIAL PROCESS INTO THE 21ST CENTURY

As the days get longer and the trees begin to bloom, we turn our attention toward the many traditions of spring - like putting those wool sweaters away, tuning up our bicycles and getting the grill ready for the first cookout of the season. These are the springtime traditions we look forward to all winter long.

Many families in upstate New York, however, must add to this list a lesser-known and less-loved springtime tradition - that of burying relatives or loved ones who passed away during the winter. Many cemeteries refuse to perform burials in the winter, and some automatically close during certain months of the year, regardless of the weather. As a result, it is estimated that, this year alone, more than 1,000 burials in New York will have had to wait until spring. For the sake of grieving families and out of respect for the dead, isn't it time we brought our burial processes into the 21st century?

Legislation backed by the New York State Funeral Directors Association and AARP-NY and introduced in the State Senate and Assembly would bring New York more in line with cold-weather states like Minnesota and Wisconsin by giving families the option of interring their loved ones in the winter. The association and the bill's sponsors, Assemblywoman RoAnn Destito, D-Rome, and Sen. James Wright, R-Watertown, should be applauded for helping to answer the growing voice of New York families and sparing them the added distress brought on by delaying the burial process.

Although a number of cemeteries perform burials year round, there are still too many that do not open graves in the winter. Why? This is not something they're used to doing - even though the tools are widely available and a regulation is on the books now that says they have to. Burying our loved ones in the winter will take a little extra planning, yes, but even more, it will take a willingness to make this happen for the benefit of our families.

The bipartisan bill includes provisions to help these cemeteries make the transition to winter burials less burdensome: cemeteries could pass on reasonable costs (first approved by the state) to surviving families. The survivors could then decide if they wished to pay a little more to have a winter burial, or wait until spring.

Where burial is available year round, families have shown they prefer not to wait. They know that delaying interment carries an even higher price tag in the form of plane tickets, accommodations and associated costs for families who must travel back for spring burials. But in any case, the choice would be theirs.

The goal is to use existing equipment like backhoes and heaters to bury the dead and provide comfort for those experiencing the loss of a loved one.

The current practice of delaying burials until spring is based largely on outdated practice from a time when only shovels were used to break through frozen ground. But progress is a wonderful thing - it has resulted in equipment that makes it easier to open graves in winter months, as other cold-weather states do. The proposed legislation will ensure that New York families have the same option.

Thomas Kearns is president of the New York State Funeral Directors Association.