Our ancestors set the course

by Peter Twitchell

In the days before tools and colonization, the Yupiit People buried their deceased loved ones above the ground for it was not possible to dig up the frozen tundra.

When the human remains were laid on the frozen ground, logs that had drifted to the lowlands of the coast were the foundation of the wooden coffins.

Later on when handsaws were available, the people of the cold latitudes of Alaska were able to produce nice covers for the dead.

Our winters are 8 months long and even today our subarctic winters require use of modern day drills and jackhammers to cut through the permafrost. But when I was a boy in the 1950s it was common to see these above ground coffins still intact.

Some of them however were collapsed due to the ravages of time and moisture.

I would see the skeletal remains, and tools, 30-30 rifles and rusted pots and pans that the deceased had owned and were buried with them.

My Mom and Grandma Hannah always told me never to take any items from these above-the-ground burial sites, and if ever possible to cover a big gaping hole in the gravesite or at least, if there was a cross to put it on the coffin.

I was ever surprised to hear not too long ago that in some coastal villages of southwestern Alaska the families of the deceased were constructing wooden boxes and laying their loved ones above the ground due to melting permafrost and rising waters on our coast.

Our ancestors of 200 years ago set the course that we must use even now.

When you really sit down and look at this, it is not barbarian, improper, or disrespectful to the deceased.

My wife told me one time that when she passes, she does not want a fancy casket costing “x” number of thousands of dollars. I can respect that.

This made me look at my own mortality. When I pass over to the spirit world I will leave my body. I will say this. They make pretty sturdy cardboard nowadays.

I was watching a documentary one time and graveyards are taking a lot of our real estate. Blocks and blocks and miles and miles. The Living, in my opinion, would be better off enjoying a grand view of the mountains, not my headstone.

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