Digging a grave in Barrow

There was a death in Barrow recently and my friend Big Jim sent me this description of the community preparing the gravesite:

“Well we dug the grave for Leland today.  We had plenty of cousins and his brother Sam to help us. It was a true arctic grave dig.  The auger was there compliments of the City of Barrow, and BUECI provided Jeff Larson to operate it as usual.

“There were about 10 guys standing there clearing the dirt with 25 mph winds taking the chill factor down to -40.  The snow was whipping along the ground and then streaming over the drifts with the light plant casting the only light.  The auger left when we did for lunch.  We returned to find the air compressor awaiting us thanks to SKW. 

“Five gallon buckets filled with the tailings were pulled by rope out of the hole and handed down the line to be dumped at the big pile of tailings.  The hole was quickly cleared of them and then the jackhammer was brought in to sculpt the sides to a four by eight by six foot hole.

“Sam and I were in the hole for the final grooming.  It is actually warmer in the hole since you’re out of the wind.  I was quickly sweating from all my clothes and from shoveling and then running the jackhammer. Then we did the measuring and laying the final mantle of pure white snow in the bottom to await the eternal guest

“I wonder if we will ever be forced to wait until summer like they do in Fairbanks – storing the bodies until the ground thaws.  I find it ironic that the folks here have taken so to the art of grave digging which didn’t seem to be an important issue in their traditional culture.  I have often thought of all the bodies still looking as they did on the day they died spread throughout the graveyards of our city.”

All cultures handle death and its attendant rites differently.  The first time I can remember ever being a part of that rite in my family was when my Uncle Albert died in his mid-forties of a heart attack.

The wake was held in the parlor of the local funeral home, which was the actual home of the funeral director and his family – a practice that always made me glad my dad had a grocery store.  The neighborhood women would enter the front door, fall on their knees and weep their way to my Nona who sat stoically in a chair in front of the body.  His wife received condolences second.  After all, she’d only lost her husband. My Nona had lost a son.

When I got to Barrow, my first encounters with the Inupiat way of handling death left me a little shaken and bewildered.  Taking pictures of the body in the casket was, to my Western mind, bad enough. But walking into someone’s home and finding that picture framed in their living room took some getting used to.

Once, we lost an entire family to a fire. Only the mother survived. She was admitted to our little hospital and her extended family gathered round her to help her heal.  I came on duty a couple days after the fire to hear laughter coming from behind the closed doors of her room. I peeked in and saw a room full of people watching home movies of the dad and children they’d just lost. The level of love, courage and family strength evident in that room was overwhelming.

One of the things that impressed me most, though, was that without funeral parlors, the people of Barrow had to take care of their own after death.  I remember watching my friend Sam’s mom sitting by her husband’s bed holding his hand as he died. She wouldn’t let us touch him to begin to prepare him for the funeral until his hand was completely cold. Then she knew that his spirit was totally gone from his body and we could start our ministrations.

Although every culture handles death with its own rites and rituals, on the North Slope, the intimacy of those rites provides both closure and a way to process grief that no funeral home in the world can offer.