When Souls Pass, Part III

life in a village, northern exposures


Family moved to the casket in twos and threes, sometimes more than once. Many reached out to touch the man who died three days past. Others leaned forward and kissed him and as they did so I realized that he was turned to face the altar and the cross, not the audience. I also remember wondering, “What condition is he in after days without preservation other than the basement cold?” Most shed tears upon him.

I looked through the program and noticed there were at least 20 pall-bearers listed. How odd. A woman sitting in the first pew wore traditional Athabascan dress. Perhaps the man’s grand-daughter. A few children wore their Sunday best. Old boots, miss-matched clothes, dusty jeans and light jackets even in July. To my left I saw a man with very old, very deep scars down the back of his scalp. Claw marks or teeth. I wanted to hear his story.

There was no pronouncement of the surviving relatives as the ceremony began. The message was lengthy and followed by guests sharing remembrances of the man’s life. We sang many hymns together, some in Gwich’in. Eventually the lid was placed on the casket and screwed in place with a cordless drill. Pall-bearers carried the casket down the aisle and outside and as they raised the box with no handles onto their shoulders I finally understood why there were so many – they would carry their elder all the way to the gravesite a mile away…


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