I visit cemeteries, collecting vivid images of the stone or wood headstones as reminders of stories known only unto themselves, and those left behind.
When our family lived in South Carolina, I was struck by a depth of history so unfamiliar to me, a product of the young Washington State. Southern gravesites, too, were often divided between Black or White, Yankee or Confederate. To wander these hot, dusty pathways of American history was a silent cultural lesson, so I suppose I searched for the same when we moved to Alaska in 2005.
Do kids enjoy visiting graves, tombstones, and the like? I cannot speak for all children, but mine seems to appreciate, if not enjoy, the chance to find the oldest grave, or sweep clean the surface of a small child’s headstone while learning more about the difficulties of living to old age 200+ years ago. Morbid? I don’t think so. Children will learn in school about such terms as “epidemic” or “war;” where better to see the direct result in a peaceful, serene, and beautiful setting?
Here are a few ideas for visiting the final resting place of interesting Alaskans:
Anchorage Memorial Cemetery: Managed by the Municipality of Anchorage, and established in 1915 by order of then-President Woodrow Wilson, this cemetery is fairly young, by many people’s standards. But then, so is Alaska, isn’t it? Be sure and walk the property, with different tracts outlining each particular group of Alaskans, then, and now. The Pioneer Tract, in particular, is of interest to many visitors. Take note of the variety of headstones, some ornate, some simple, wooden crosses. It’s a beautiful, peaceful spot amidst the city’s bustle. Open 8 a.m.-8 p.m. in the summer; 8 a.m.-5 p.m. in the winter.
Sitka National Cemetery: Set on a gentle, rolling hill above Sawmill Road in Sitka, the National Cemetery is a lovely example. At just over four acres, the cemetery features the gravesites of many notable Alaskans, like Territorial Governor John Green Brady, who sat in the hot seat from 1897-1906. The cemetery was established between 1868 and 1870, changing hands a number of times before the federal government gained management rights and now oversees the maintenance and organization. Open year-round. The Sitka Visitors Bureau can also point you to other, smaller cemeteries in the city, some of which are quite tucked away.
Gold Rush Cemetery, Skagway: Not quite so somber a place as the Sitka site, the Gold Rush Cemetery features graves of scalawags like Jefferson Rudolph “Soapy” Smith, and the dude who shot him, Frank Reid. Located on the “other side of the tracks” across the White Pass Yukon Railroad yard, this cemetery is a fascinating terminus to the great Skagway Walking Tour. Set beneath old, twisted trees, this little graveyard is the scene for many a tale of old time Skagway. Find the cemetery by walking (or driving) up Alaska Street to 23rd Avenue, and cross the tracks to the parking lot. A great hike to Reid Falls can accompany your visit, up the 2 miles toward a rushing waterfall, and back again. Open year round, but obviously more accessible during the summer months.
Eklutna Historical Park, Eklutna/Eagle River area: First created around 1900, when the current St. Nicholas Orthodox Church was built, this graveyard is dedicated to the Dena’ina-Athabascan people, and features beautifully-apportioned “spirit houses” to help the dead arrive safely in their next world. Tour the St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, too, and see the blending of two distinctly different cultures. Donations requested, open only during summer season. Bring bug spray. Take the Eklutna Exit off the Glenn Highway, head north to the park.
Nome Cemetery: Yes, a stretch for most families, but if you ever find yourself way up north, do stop by the property, located on Cemetery Hill at the outskirts of town. Miners, homesteaders, and Native Alaskans rest comfortably here, which was not always the case during life. Epidemics like the diptheria outbreak of the early 1900’s took many lives, as did violence and the environment. The City of Nome has been working to improve the cemetery, but I like it this way, with waving grass and years of history tucked away underneath the crowberry patches. The Nome Visitors Bureau can help with all sorts of arrangements for visiting this famous, if not infamous, community.