The first thing you see at Alaska’s Eklutna Cemetery is a tidy white church, with copper-colored onion domes that are topped by the three-barred Russian Orthodox cross.
The church is a reminder of the days when Alaska was claimed by imperial Russia. But it hardly prepares you for the unique combination of Native American and Russian Orthodox influences in the graveyard beyond.
Our guide is Aaron Leggett, who waits patiently under a light but steady rain to explain his community’s burial traditions.
Eklutna is a Dena’ina Native village, just off the highway about 25 miles north of Anchorage.
According to Leggett, an anthropologist and curator at the Anchorage Museum, the Dena’ina are an Athabascan people, who have occupied Alaska’s south-central Cook Inlet area for more than 1,000 years. Athabascans are part of a vast Native American language group that stretches into Canada and Mexico. They are linguistically related to Apaches and Navajos.
Before they encountered the Russian fur traders and priests who began coming to the coast in the early 1700s, the Dena’ina cremated their dead.
Leggett says the ashes were usually put into a birch-bark basket and placed in a tree or by a riverbank, in the belief that would free the spirits to make their final journey to what the Dena’ina call “the High Country.”
The Dena’ina began to convert to Russian Orthodoxy around 1836, Leggett says, after a smallpox epidemic wiped out half their population.
“But when we converted to Orthodoxy, the church forbid us from cremating human remains,” he says. “And as a result, we constructed these spirit houses, where the spirits would have a place to go — and not bother the living until they made that final journey.”
According to church traditions, the spirit would need as many as 40 days to make that passage from the grave site. In the Eklutna Cemetery, around 100 spirit houses cluster near the edge of the woods, sheltered by birch and alder trees.
Most of the houses are like long, low boxes built over the graves. They have peaked roofs, usually with a board like a cockscomb that runs along the ridge. The boards are cut into fancy patterns, like Victorian gingerbread.
Keeping with Dena’ina beliefs, the houses provide shelter for the spirit. And following the Orthodox tradition, the bodies are buried in the ground. But an Orthodox burial is a back-breaking process in a place that’s built on glacier-scoured rock.
“You couldn’t pick a place that is more inopportune to bury somebody,” Leggett says. “You go down about 3 inches, and you start running into these very large rocks. So it becomes back-breaking work, and you really have to have a team of people to be able to dig down enough to bury a person.”
Leggett would know. His family comes from Eklutna, and many family members are buried here.
Once a body has been buried, Leggett says, a blanket is spread over the stones that are mounded on the grave. “What that is, is symbolic of covering the person,” he says. “You’re wrapping them in warmth, and also, in many Native American cultures, wool blankets were a sign of trade and wealth, so it was just another way of showing respect.”
When they’re finished, the houses are placed on top of the blanket. Most are painted in primary colors: bright blues, reds and yellows.
Some have windows and porches — one even has a cupola — but they’re modest compared with a masterpiece that stands by itself, in a grove near the edge of the cemetery. It was built for Leggett’s grandmother, an important person in the community.
“My grandmother was Marie,” he says. “Her maiden name was Marie Ondola; her married name was Marie Rosenberg. And she passed away in 2003.”
Marie Rosenberg’s spirit house is a model of a two-story white clapboard building, with glass windows and a red tin roof that glistens in the rain.
“It’s actually based on the girl’s dormitory at the Eklutna Vocational School that was operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs here in Eklutna from 1925 to 1945,” Leggett says.
Built on a welded-steel frame by Leggett’s uncle Frank, the house stands about 4 feet high, surrounded by bouquets of artificial flowers. “A hundred years from now, that church may not be standing, but this spirit house will be,” Leggett says.
The rain beads up on the spirit house windows, where an icon of the Virgin Mary looks out, past the edge of the Eklutna Cemetery, and into the trees.