An Alaskan funeral

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Writing in the Anchorage Daily News, writer Michael Carey gives this account of an Alaskan funeral. 

The mourners included half a dozen men scattered throughout the church who looked as if they were on work release: leathers, tattoos, unkempt hair and beards, the aura of hard living, men never domesticated by women. They were in their forties, like the man who died.

One of them sat in front of me. Tall, sinewy — in blue jeans, a faded long-sleeve shirt, and boots. I couldn’t see a tattoo but was willing to bet he had one. He wore an Oakland Raiders do-rag over his hair. I wondered if the Raiders’ bandana had simply been at hand or was a statement, given the Raiders reputation as outlaws.

There had been a viewing before the service, and the casket stood open in front of the first row of mourners. A plain box, neither painted nor varnished, beautiful in its fresh simplicity.

The rector of Saint Matthew’s, Scott Fisher, began the service by announcing it was time to close the casket. Two Native men carried in the top and took a few moments to ensure the top and bottom aligned properly. Then one of them used a battery-powered screwdriver to drill screws into the coffin, one on each corner, one on each side. A piercing whine filled the church six times.

After that, the two men placed a tanned moose hide — a large, fringed hide — over the casket.

A couple things about Alaska Native funerals for those who have never attended one. They are bound to be long. The Book of Common Prayer contains optional elements for the standard service for the dead. Alaska Natives don’t do optional. They want the entire service.

Second, the music. We sang a number of traditional Protestant hymns, but they didn’t sound traditional. Interior Natives love country and western music, and “What A Friend I Have in Jesus” can come arranged by George Jones.

If the Holy Ghost was present, so was the ghost of Hank Williams.

Scott Fisher shepherded us through the service with a Native preacher who recited prayers in English and Athabascan.

The preacher played several hymns on a guitar and led the congregation in song before delivering a sermon in which he interpreted Ecclesiastes from a Native villager’s perspective. He closed by asking the Natives in the audience to take care of their young and admonished all of us to stop drinking alcohol.

Five or six people came forward to offer their memories of the dead man, including siblings on the verge of tears who had one message: I loved him.

The last speaker was the man in front of me wearing the Raiders do-rag who hastily walked to the altar, turned toward the mourners, nodded to Scott Fisher, and placed the fingers of his right hand straight up and down on the moose-hide covered casket. He kept his fingers on the casket until he finished — as if attempting to maintain contact with the dead man,Vernon.

He began by looking straight atVernon’s parents as he said, “I know death. My mother died. My father died. My sisters died. I know death.”

He told three stories, all aboutVernon, all three to illustrate the same point: My friend lived up to the construction worker’s honor code. He was hard-working, trustworthy and, when given authority, fair. A man who is hard working trustworthy and fair is a righteous construction worker.

The do-rag man explained how he metVernon. He was new on a job, and at lunch,Vernoncame over and sat down next to him.Vernondidn’t say much but eventually asked, “What’s that tattoo mean?,” pointing to the do-rag man’s bare arm. “It’s the date my son died,” replied the do-rag man. “Oh,” saidVernonretreating into silence. From there, the two men became friends.

The do-rag man was about finished. He closed this way.

“When my son died, I had to go toBaltimorefor the funeral. I had spent most of my life around here and didn’t know anything about Camden Yards or the New Jersey Turnpike. After a while I was driving around looking for my hotel, lost. I kept driving and driving, lost and more lost. Finally, I came to a stoplight and felt like I would fall to pieces. I couldn’t take it any more. And I prayed to my son, ‘Please, please take me to the hotel where I can rest. Please.’ The light turned, and I drove a couple blocks. There was the hotel.

“Please don’t forget the power of prayer.”

With that, the do-rag man returned to his seat and the service reached its final stage.


Full story here.


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