In Alaskan Cemetery, Native And Orthodox Rites Mix In a part of America that was once claimed by imperial Russia, a unique combination of Native American and Russian Orthodox influences mingle in a graveyard. There, spirit houses are built to house the dead and ease their passage.

In Alaskan Cemetery, Native And Orthodox Rites Mix

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And we'll stay in Alaska for the next installment of our summer road trip to American graveyards, Dead Stop.


INSKEEP: You can find a lot of life when you visit the dead. And NPR's Corey Flintoff recently visited the town of Eklutna. The cemetery there is known for its colorful spirit houses, remnants of a time when the area's native Dena'ina people crossed paths with fur trappers and priests for Russia.


AARON LEGGETT: (Foreign language spoken)

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Aaron Leggett stands in the rain next to the white-painted church in the cemetery at Eklutna, a Native village just off a busy highway north of Anchorage. Leggett is an anthropologist and curator at the Anchorage Museum, but he's also the treasurer of Eklutna and his roots here go deep

LEGGETT: The Dena'ina are the Athabascan people of the south-central Cook Inlet area, and have been in this area for well over a thousand years.


FLINTOFF: Leggett leads the way past the church, its copper-colored onion domes topped with the three-barred Russian Orthodox cross. The Dena'ina began to convert to Orthodoxy around 1836, he says, after a smallpox epidemic wiped out half of the population. Before that, they cremated their dead, placing the ashes in a birch-bark basket in a tree or by a riverbank. They believed that freed the spirits to make their final journey to Yu-yon, or the High Country.

LEGGETT: But when we converted to Orthodoxy, the church forbid us from cremating human remains. And as a result, we constructed these spirit houses where the spirits would have a place to go and not bother the living until they made that final journey, which based on Orthodox concepts of time, was 40 days.

FLINTOFF: Most of the spirit houses are like long, low boxes, built over the graves. They have peaked roofs, usually with a board like a coxcomb that runs along the ridge. The boards are cut into fancy patterns like Victorian gingerbread. They're painted in primary colors, bright blues and reds and yellows. Some have windows and porches. One even has a cupola. But they're modest compared with a masterpiece that stands by itself, in a grove near the edge of the cemetery.

LEGGETT: We are standing at my grandmother's spirit house. My grandmother was Marie, her maiden name was Marie Ondola. Her married name was Marie Rosenberg. And she passed away in 2003.

FLINTOFF: Marie Rosenberg's spirit house is a model of a two-story white clapboard building with glass windows and a red tin roof that glistens in the rain.

LEGGETT: It's actually based on the girl's dormitory at the Eklutna Vocational School that was operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs here in Eklutna from 1925 to 1945.

FLINTOFF: Built on a welded-steel frame, the house stands more than four feet high. It's surrounded by bouquets of artificial flowers.

LEGGETT: A hundred years from now, that church may not be standing, but this spirit house will be.

FLINTOFF: The rain beads up on the spirit house windows, where an icon of the Virgin Mary looks out towards the woods on the edge of the Ekulna Cemetery.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News.

INSKEEP: And even if you can't travel there, you can find photos of the Eklutna Graveyard at

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

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