Death is so hard, yet everyone loses their loved ones eventually. It seems like out here with the community being so close, people of all ages, and so many related, people start loosing loved ones much earlier and death is part of their life so much earlier then what many others in the US experience.
There have been some things that have stood out to me in how death is handled here that are so sweet and caring for the family. Mainly how the community comes around to help and support the family, sharing meals, and sitting with them and the deceased, giving time to say goodbye.
We’ve participated and observed two funerals out here so far. And three others we missed while in town for training. The two we saw were pretty different in practice, and we are still learning what is traditional, and what is just how different families want to do things.
So far those who passed away were in Anchorage. Family members will go to town to meet and prepare the body. They will have a viewing and sometimes a service in town for family and friends who aren’t able to come back to the village. Then the family escorts the deceased back home to Graying. A lot of the community will show up at the airport when the plane arrives, to show their respects and honor the family. The body is unloaded and brought to either their house or to the tribe hall. The family stays with them for a couple nights and community members will bring food for meals and come and visit, eat, and sit with them in the house. We were asked to sing worship songs during many of those evenings.
Then the body is brought to the tribal hall for a couple nights, where meals,(potluck style) and visiting continue. Many people stay with the family and the deceased throughout the night. The last night at the hall they have a potlatch (not potluck, though everyone does bring food). The first one we went to, people brought their food and laid it on the floor around the deceased, then found a seat around the room. After prayer the family passes out the food serving everyone. Then they pass out gifts to everyone, especially recognizing those who are close friends or have helped a lot with funeral preparation. After that many will come back to play cards through the night, keeping the family and the body company. We played worship music at the beginning of these, till my throat was horse and my fingers blistered and I could play no more. Some time that day men would go up to the cemetery to dig the grave.
The next morning there is a church funeral service, with either a pastor, or close friend/relative officiating. Before the service they will dress the body in the casket then leave them alone for one hour. Then the service starts. There are worship songs, prayer, and scripture read, and an opportunity for people to share memories of the person who passed. Then there is a final viewing and all the family gather around the deceased and everyone gives hugs, and offers condolences to the family like a receiving line, then say goodbye to the person who passed away.
They close the casket and the room gathers around the body and stomps, 4 stomps 4 times, with an elder directing them. Then the pall bearers pick up the casket turn it around clockwise before bringing them out of the hall to the vehicle waiting to bring them up to the cemetery.
Everyone follows them up, and another vehicle brings a framed box surrounded in tar paper that the casket will go into, and a little house, or roof with a fence bordering it, beautifully painted and decorated that will sit over the grave. Poles are put over the hole and the tar framed box goes on top of it, then the casket goes inside that and the tar lid is put over and screwed down. Ropes have been laid under the tar box and the men pull out the poles and use the ropes to lower the box into the hole. The officiator speaks some words and prays, then one of the men gets a shovel full of dirt and the family go first throwing a handful on top. Then everyone follows till everyone has thrown some dirt on. Then the men start shoveling the dirt in the hole. Once the hole is filled and they’ve put all the dirt back on top then the poles are put over again to make a flat surface and the grave covering is put on top. The family puts things inside or under the covering - a cup, plate, bowl, silverware, some toiletries, arranged nicely. Flowers and wreaths are arranged on and around the house then the family gets their picture around it. I was asked to sing worship songs again at the second grave side we attended. I sang from when they first began putting the casket in the box till the spirit house was in place and finished decorating.
When it’s all done everyone goes back home.
Since writing this post in June there have been 6 more deaths and funerals we have attended, 3 in Grayling and 3 in neighboring villages. Here and there things have been done a little differently, but overall these experiences continued to be the theme, especially in Grayling. It has been a hard summer with so much death, but it is also good to see how the community comes together during these hard times to help each other out and hold each other up.