Why Is This Alaskan Cemetery Dotted With Tiny Houses?

Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders
Oct. 30 2013 10:02 AM

Tiny Wooden Homes House the Dead at this Alaskan Cemetery

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The graveyard outside of the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Eklutna, Alaska, is filled with more than 100 colorful spirit houses, built to cover burial sites. The miniature buildings combine Russian Orthodox tradition and Native American practices.

Eklutna, located about 25 miles outside of Anchorage, was the site of many Dena'ina Athabascan Indian villages about 800 years ago. Russian Orthodox missionaries arrived in the area around 1830 and the two communities slowly integrated. 

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Before the missionaries arrived, it was customary for the Athabascans to cremate their dead. When the cultures started to blend, they began burying their deceased in the cemetery built up around St. Nicholas church.

Spirit houses, an Athabascan tradition, provide a place for the deceased soul to dwell during the 40 days it is believed to linger in this world. When a body is buried, stones are piled on the grave and covered in a blanket to provide symbolic warmth and comfort to the person. Then the spirit house is placed over the blanket and relatives paint it in colors that represent the family.

The final touch is an Orthodox symbol: a wooden three-bar cross. The bars represent, from the top, the sign placed on the cross during Christ's crucifixion, the bar to which his arms were nailed, and the footrest that supported his body.

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View Eklutna Village Historical Pk in a larger map