May 30, 2020, Sitka, Alaska
I don’t like visiting cemeteries. Perhaps it’s a reminder of my own mortality. Or perhaps it was watching my elementary school being built in the summer of 1950. To make room for the school playground and ball fields they had to exhume an old Dutch Reformed cemetery with bones dating back to the 1650s. I watched in morbid fascination. The older kids told us all sorts of made up stories about “Old Mr. Ven den Handle” or Old Mrs. “Van Soon” who were being removed. It gave me the creeps but I still watched. Perhaps I had reached my cemetery quota before my 5th birthday.
I admit visiting a few cemeteries, Evita’s grave in Buenos Aries, Jimi Hendrix’s in Renton, Tito’s in Belgrade or Alexander Dubcek’s in Bratislava. Each was a unique cultural experience, watching folk’s rituals and especially seeing what they left at the gravesite.
I don’t visit my parents’ or grandparents’ graves much because that is not the way I want to remember them. I think of them as vital and alive; smart and funny. On the few times I visited their graves I remembered their last days, not the memory I want to carry. As for me, I’ve told my family “do whatever gives you comfort. I won’t be there.” Although, if I had a choice, I would want my body to be able nourish living things, to rejoin the cycle of life. That may be why I love photographing small young trees growing from the decaying trunks of fallen trees.
So, it’s odd that I like to visit is the Orthodox Cemetery in Sitka. If I needed to pick a place for me it would be here, although I am not Orthodox (an any sense.) I like it because it feeds a profusion of living things, from skunk cabbage to forget-me-nots to deer heart with a lot of dandelions and buttercups thrown in. The cemetery is in the forest so there is a good chance that a root could tap into whatever nutrients my body could supply.
I like this place because it is mildly chaotic, with graves, not in rows as much as accommodating the lay of the land. Looking through the filter of the trees you can see the snowcapped jagged mountains. Even though it’s close to town it is peaceful.
Bob Sam has dedicated his life to keeping up this cemetery. He brushes it enough so you can see the stones but not enough to do violence to the nature that is so integral to the cemetery. He rights stones when he can and makes sure there is no trach lying around the stones and monuments or stuck in the brush. It is a labor of love and Sitka loves Bob for doing it. Bob is also a culture bearer, with stories to tell and pass on.
So, my walk today is through and around Sitka’s Orthodox Cemetery.