7/3/06 - Athabascan spirit houses - Eklutna, AK - 2herrons

The graveyard outside of the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Eklutna, Alaska, located about 25 miles outside of Anchorage, 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, 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. 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.

Text borrowed from Atlas Obscura on Slate, a new travel blog


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