The Alaskan Way Of Death (Best of “Hubris”)

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“The ground is frozen solid, and no amount of shoveling, hacking, or pick-axing is going to create a grave. In Alaska, a corpse is ‘put on ice’ until summer, usually July or August, when the ground has thawed sufficiently to allow a grave to be dug. It has its drawbacks, of course. Bev’s daughter told me that they all said goodbye to their mother six months ago and went through the grieving process, but now they have to go through it all again at the burial.”—Wayne Mergler

Above The Timberline

By Wayne Mergler

Skagway, Alaska.

Skagway, Alaska.

Wayne MerglerANCHORAGE Alaska—(Weekly Hubris) December 19, 2016—An old friend—Bev—died back in January of this year. I attended her funeral then and the family’s visitation. Tomorrow, she is going to be buried in a cemetery plot here in Anchorage.

But, wait, you might say: This is July! She’s been dead for six months!

And, yes, you would be correct to say that, and I would have to respond, stoically, that this is the Alaskan way of death.

In Alaska, anyone who dies in the winter must wait until the summer to be buried.

The ground is frozen solid, and no amount of shoveling, hacking, or pick-axing is going to create a grave. In Alaska, a corpse is “put on ice” until summer, usually July or August, when the ground has thawed sufficiently to allow a grave to be dug. It has its drawbacks, of course. Bev’s daughter told me that they all said goodbye to their mother six months ago and went through the grieving process, but now they have to go through it all again at the burial.

That is why so many Alaskans opt for cremation. Just like Sam McGee in the famous poem by Robert Service (“The Cremation of Sam McGee”), it may also be a last-ditch effort to get warm one more time, even in death (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Cremation_of_Sam_McGee).

Alaskans who are cremated often leave instructions that they want their ashes to be scattered over the mountains or over the blue glacier-fed streams and rivers or over the sprawling, undulating tundra. I have witnessed such ceremonies, myself, where a group of friends take the urn full of ashes out to some beautiful, specified place and scatter the contents to the wind, complete with prayers or songs or poetry.

Sometimes it doesn’t go quite as planned.

I am reminded now of my friend, Fred, and his pal, Ernie. Fred and Ernie were both pilots, each flying his own little, twin-engine plane, and it was Ernie’s last request that his ashes be scattered from his plane over the magnificent Alaskan mountains.

Fred, of course, agreed to do it. So, up in the plane Fred went, with Ernie in an urn resting beside him on the passenger’s seat. He had chosen a splendid summer day with the truly spectacular Alaskan vistas stretched out below him. Those who fly up here (and there are many of them) strongly maintain that the only way to really see Alaska is from a small plane.

When Fred reached a particular peak or whatever spot had been decided upon for this event, he took up Ernie’s urn, pulled out the cork, opened the window of his cockpit, and dumped Ernie out. Suddenly, unexpectedly, startlingly, Ernie’s ashes, instead of cooperating and scattering to the winds, came back in a huge whoosh into Fred’s face, into his hair, into his mouth and nose, all over his clothes, and into the cockpit of the plane.

Fred slammed the window shut, spat and spat again, and tried to wipe the thick gray ash from his eyebrows, his face, his hair. Ernie was, quite literally, all over the place. Fred did his best to clean up Ernie, to get as much ash as he could out of the plane, but he admits that it has always bothered him greatly that most of Ernie, instead of being dust in the wind over the mountains of the Alaska Range, actually resides in a vacuum cleaner at Merrill Field in Anchorage.

He never had the heart to tell Ernie’s widow what really happened. His only consolation in all this is that he knows that Ernie would think it was all quite hilarious.

Another wild story to illustrate the Alaskan way of death concerns Gordon.

Gordon was a beloved and admired musician; a composer, conductor, and a great guy. At the end of his life, he was living in a cabin on a mountaintop south of Anchorage, in a place so remote and so high that in the winter it could only be reached using skis or snowshoes. Gordon lived there alone and, one night, he passed away.

Days passed—I’m not sure how many—before anyone realized that they had neither seen nor heard from Gordon in a suspiciously long time. Finally, when cell phone calls went unanswered, a group of his friends donned skis and snowshoes and began the climb up the mountain to Gordon’s remote aerie. When they finally arrived, they found the cabin cold and dark; and Gordon dead in his bed. It was what they had feared and it took them a while to figure out what to do, how to get Gordon’s body down the mountain.

Eventually, they wrapped Gordon up in a blanket and tied his body onto a sled. From there, they began the long and dangerous descent of the mountain. As they skied along, trying desperately to keep the sled under control, they began to realize that this was going to be even harder than they had feared. Soon, gathering momentum, they found themselves flying along the icy slopes, unable to control the sled, until, at last, the sled broke free and Gordon, still wrapped in his blanket, shot down the mountain ahead of them like a bullet. Down, down, down the slippery slopes Gordon flew, while his friends frantically tried to keep up—and failed.

Eventually, Gordon and the sled ended up at the bottom of the mountain, resting against a clump of brush, where the skiers finally caught up with him.

The guys had to laugh, heartily, when their adventure was, at last, over. Gordon, they knew, would certainly see the humor in all this. And Gordon would have loved this one last adventure, this one last wild ride down the mountain. In fact, as a tribute to Gordon the composer and conductor, his musical friends wrote a composition for orchestra called “Gordon’s Last Ride,” which was eventually performed by orchestras in the area. My daughter Joanna, who had known Gordon well, was one of the musicians who performed “Gordon’s Last Ride” and loved the piece.

“It is so perfect for Gordon,” she said, “so bizarre, so wild, so Alaskan.”

Alaska’s Native people have, of course, their own traditions regarding death. In the boreal forests of the Athabaskan Indians and in the rain forests of the Tlingits and Haidas, death houses are built of wood. In these small, intricate houses, the dead are laid to rest. In most cases, the bodies are cremated on a funeral pyre, during which time much ceremony and celebration of life takes place. There are feasts, much smoking of pipes, and dancing. When the body is reduced only to ash, the ashes are taken to the grave-house and put there for eternity.

A major exception to this is the death of a shaman. A shaman is never cremated, but is put into the grave-house intact, wrapped in skins or blankets, with all of his personal possessions and a few gifts buried with him.

Some Indians traditionally buried their dead in trees, keeping them well out of the reach of animals. These death trees were sometimes clustered together in a forest, a grisly forest of corpses, high up on platforms within the overhanging branches.

In the Arctic, particularly when the Eskimo people were nomadic, moving from season to season to new locations, there was no wood for the building of death-houses or even for funeral pyres. When someone died, they were usually dressed and cleaned and groomed by the women of the group, then laid out on the tundra and covered with stones in a cairn above them to protect them from animals.

This rarely worked well. Persistent animals eventually found their way into the cairns and the tundra is still, to this day, in some places, littered with human bones.

During the Gold Rush of the late 19th century, prospectors and Sourdoughs soon found themselves having to deal with the peculiar realities of death in the Far North

Gone but not forgotten in Dyea, Alaska.

Gone but not forgotten in Dyea, Alaska.

If a partner or a friend died during the harsh winter, there was nothing much to do but cremate the body. Some may have put the corpses in trees, but that would have been not only grisly but also an open invitation to dangerous animals already starving in the harsh Alaskan winter.

Usually, they built a funeral pyre and burned the body. Some put the corpse in a nearby shed or outhouse and set fire to it. Prayers and other burial ceremonies were conducted while standing beside the roaring, blazing warmth of a welcome fire, as the deceased partner was reduced to ash. In some cases, ashes were gathered up and put in a box to take home to some relative far away but, more often, the ashes were left alone, to blow across the wintry landscapes with the north wind.

There was, one old prospector confessed later in life, an aching sadness about death in Alaska, far away from home, in this strange, inhospitable place at the very end of the world.

One family I have heard of had their own odd ritual for the death of a belovéd grandfather. This family did not live in Anchorage or Fairbanks or in any other town in Alaska. They had homesteaded years ago and now lived in a sprawling compound of cabins and caches and outhouses deep in the northern wilderness. When their grandfather, the family patriarch, died, he left specific instructions that he did not want to be cremated; he wanted, instead, to rest beneath his favorite white birch tree at the edge of his property, where he could look out over mountains and rivers and be at peace. And so the family promised to honor his wishes.

But Grandfather died in the winter, when the temperatures outside were 60 below zero. They knew they could not bury him then. So they built a coffin and put Grandfather in the coffin and left him, sealed up and frozen, on the front porch of his cabin in the sub-zero weather. When spring came, and the thaws began, they knew that they still could not yet bury Grandfather; the ground was still frozen. So they revved up their generators and put Grandfather in the family freezer, along with the moose-burgers, caribou steaks and salmon fillets.

And there Grandfather stayed, until, at long last, in July or August, the ground thawed enough for him to be placed within it. Even Faulkner could not have improved on this story.

Only in Alaska.

Image credits: The first image used above derives from http://www.skagwaystories.org/category/other-communities/; the second photo was taken by David M. Simpson.

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About Wayne Mergler

Wayne Mergler was born in Lynchburg, Virginia in 1944 and grew up in Ohio, Georgia, and Europe. A graduate of Auburn University, he also studied at the University of London and at the University of Alaska Anchorage. In 1968, he and his wife Maureen, impossibly young and looking for adventure, drove cross country up the Alcan Highway to Alaska, where they found everything they were looking for, and more. Mergler taught English, drama, philosophy, and history in the Anchorage public schools for 25 years, taught literature and writing and film as an adjunct at the University of Alaska Anchorage, and currently teaches literature to senior citizens. He is the author/editor of the award-winning, definitive anthology of Alaska literature, The Last New Land, now in its fourth edition. He has, in addition: appeared on radio and TV talk shows in Alaska; lectured on literature and history; been a contributor to the public radio series, "Hold This Thought"; worked as a columnist for the Anchorage Daily News and the Anchorage Chronicle; been a book critic and reviewer; and is also active in community and professional theater. (Wayne's a busy old critter!) Now retired, Mergler works as a part-time bookseller. He and Maureen live in Anchorage, have three grown children (Joanna, Heather, and Seth) and eight grandchildren, all home-grown Alaskans. Author Photo: Heather Emerson
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