There’s a scene from my second novel (you know, the one that I thought was finished until I talked with my agent a few days and found out (surprise, surprise) that it needs one more rewrite) where the main character mentions the spirit houses out by Eklutna.
Eklutna is a Native village about 20 minutes outside of Anchorage. It’s tiny, with the population hovering at less than 75. It’s largely known for three things: Eklutna Lake, where many of us run and bike and hike; Eklutna, Inc., the Native Corporation, which holds much financial sway as the largest private landowner in Anchorage.
And the spirit houses out at the Eklutna Cemetery (also known as Eklutna Historical Park).
The spirit houses blend the Dena’ina, Athabascan tradition with Russian Orthodox. Most of the houses are adorned with crosses, along with flowers, toys, hats, gloves and even a small bottle of Jack Daniels whiskey, as seen from one of the tiny windows.
Walking through the cemetery is both magical and solemn, as if the land is haunted by happy and peaceful spirits. For it is a haunted place. It has that feel, that expansiveness that comes from suspended belief. It’s a good feeling. Whenever I visit, I walk slowly. I sit beside the grave houses. Sometimes I even lie down in the grass and close my eyes, wondering what it would be like to have my bones resting in such a place, surrounded by mountains and fireweed and the sharp smell of rose hip berries.
There is one magnificent house in the corner, a house that rivals every girl’s dream doll house. There are even curtains in the windows, and heaps of flowers across the front and sides.This cozy house belongs to Marie Rosenberg, who died in 2003.
The Athabascan people traditionally cremated their dead. But after they converted to Russian Orthodox back in the early 1800s (a smallpox epidemic greatly reduced their numbers around that time so I’m assuming that this conversion wasn’t exactly desired by the Athabascan people) cremation was forbidden. So the Athabascan people adapted by burying their dead and then building houses for their spirits.
What I love best are the houses that are crumbling, the elements wearing them down. Athabascan tradition believes that everything eventually returns to the earth, and so the houses are allowed to decay naturally. There is something so beautiful and solemn about weathered houses placed beside newer and more polished models, something that speaks of the true meaning of life and death.
There’s even a crib spirit house for Alex, a baby who died the same day he was born.
I usually visit the spirit houses when my sister comes up from Philly. I can’t begin to tell you how poignant it is walking around this solemn yet hopeful place with one sister when one of my other sisters died years ago. We never talk about this as we walk, yet I know it’s on both of our minds. (Oh, if only we could have built a spirit house for her!)
If you’re ever in the area, I recommend a slow walk-through with someone you love, especially on a moody or overcast day. Who knows, you may come away haunted by memories not your own (which, after all, is the best kind of haunting, especially for a writer).
P.S. The Eklutna Cemetery/Historical Park is open to the public Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., from the middle of May through September.