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Cemetery Receiving Vaults

Photo by my beautiful girlfriend Rachele; Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, NY

Death is a crazy thing - it doesn't stop. It doesn't care what time of day it is, what day of the week it is, or even what month of the year it is - death comes and doesn't care about the world around it. In the warmer months of the year, or in places where it is warmer year round, when someone dies they are simply buried a few days later and that's it. But in areas where the cold swoops in and with it, the snow falls and the grounds freeze, how do we bury the dead? In modern days, this isn't much of an issue any more but in the past, this was a huge problem. The ground was sometimes to hard to simply dig with a shovel, so the death industry had to come up with a way to deal with this, and their solution was this room pictured about, known as a cemetery receiving vault.

These receiving vaults became very common in northern Europe, northern North America, and far southern South America, where the winters were harsh, cold, and relentless. Receiving vaults were most commonly used in the 1800s and early 1900s, and were literally large rooms where the bodies of the deceased could be kept until the ground could be penetrated and a proper grave could be made. Many early receiving vaults were simple chambers dug out of the sides of hills. As years passed, many cemeteries began making above-ground, beautifully designed vaults were created that added to the beauty of the cemetery. They could often blend in with the rest of the cemeteries features and look like an elaborate mausoleum, even though they were often kept towards the back of the cemetery.

Receiving vaults were also used to temporarily hold the dead while construction on a crypt or a mausoleum was being done, and once they were built, the body would simply be moved from the vault to their final resting place. In other situations, the vaults were also used to hold the body while a decision was being made as to where the final resting place would be, or until the family had the funds necessary to arrange for a gravesite.

By Derffred45 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Some might think that these vaults were creepy since the body was simply left there (either on shelves or simply in the center of the room if the shelves were all full, like during times of an epidemic) until it was ready to be moved to a grave. But these vaults were so incredibly useful to the cemeteries that without them, things could have definitely gotten ugly. Receiving vaults are rarely build these days, and are used nearly as often, since the advancement of modern technology has helped make the job of digging graves in the winter months possible. There are even devices like the ground thawer which can be placed on frozen ground where a grave could be buried, and it thaws and warms the ground so the dirt is able to be dug and thus, a grave is born!

So luckily for us, there's a good chance our bodies won't be stuck hanging out in one of these eerie receiving vaults with our fellow dead neighbors until the warmer months come around. But these vaults were a blessing to have when they were in use, and they are left behind in cemeteries around the world as beautiful reminders of just how far the death industry has progressed from a technological standpoint!


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