Woman finds herself hip-deep after ground caves in at cemetery

Posted: Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Hazel Felton did not have a near-death experience over the weekend, but she did have one foot in the grave -- literally.

Felton was cleaning up around family graves Sunday at Kenai Cemetery when her dog Boo Boo's leash became entangled in a wooden cross beside a nearby headstone. When she stepped onto the grave to get a better angle to free the terrier's leash, the ground collapsed under her foot, and her leg plunged down as far as it could go.

"I put one leg in past my hip bone. That's about 34 inches," Felton said.

Planting her foot nearly a yard deep in an old grave understandably disturbed Felton, and she got herself out fast.

"I just shot outta there like a light," she said. "It just creeped me out."

Equally creepy for Felton is the fact she was named after the daughter of the man whose grave she fell into. Warder Showalter's daughter Hazel, who died shortly before Felton was born, was a good friend of Felton's mother.

Felton, who was uninjured in the mishap, called the Showalter family to let them know what happened. After hearing the story, Adeline Chaffin found humor in the incident.

"I ask Hazel, 'Were you playing footsy with my dad?'" Chaffin said.

Chaffin and her husband were concerned someone else might fall into the grave, so the couple went out to the cemetery the next day to see the hole for themselves and put up some safety measures.

"We wanted to rope it off so nobody would fall in the grave and get hurt," Chaffin said.

Chaffin, whose father was buried in the cemetery in 1983, saw no reason to get upset over the incident.

"It's just one of those things that happens in life," she said.

In 17 years working with the Division of Parks and Recreation, which maintains the cemetery, director Bob Frates has never had to deal with a grave that collapsed until now.

"I've never heard of a report of a grave caving in like that," Frates said.

His department routinely compacts the earth over a new grave with motorized equipment and allows it time to settle before adding more soil and compacting again, if necessary.

"We traditionally give the site a year to settle, before we go back," he said.

Frates speculated the delayed settling of the Showalter plot may have been due to a wood coffin that held out far longer than usual before collapsing. Whatever settling is going to occur usually occurs within the first year, he said.

B.J. Elder, funeral director of Peninsula Memorial Chapel, agreed the instability of the plot was probably due to a coffin that collapsed. However, he offered another possible explanation. Burrowing animals, like badgers, could be to blame.

"Wild animals can wreak havoc on graves," Elder said. "Of course, it'd just be a coincidence if they burrowed over somebody's grave."

Elder noted that large cemeteries that dig graves with heavy equipment require caskets to be encased in outer burial containers, usually made of cement, to support the weight of the equipment as it moves around the cemetery.

However, smaller cemeteries, like Kenai City Cemetery, still dig graves by hand, so they don't require outer vaults that would prevent the collapse of a casket and the soil above.

Parks and Recreation cordoned off the grave site Tuesday and plans to backfill the hole later this week.

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