Wednesday, June 5, 2013

burying the dead in Nunavut

We came across the cemetery on one of our drives. It appeared somewhat unexpectedly, down a long, winding road that leads past a bunch of cabins all the way to Mount Pelly. The graveyard is hidden from the rest of town.

Cambridge Bay is a pleasant small town of friendly people and not necessarily a lot of fast-paced action, but people do die. In fact, Nunavut has the highest violent crime rate per capita of all the provinces, and Cambridge Bay has the second highest rate of all the communities in the territories, so sometimes there are murders. More tragically, like many communities in the north, there are suicides. Just a few weeks ago there were two funerals in one day; one death due to a fire, and another death by suicide. On the same day as the two funerals, another person committed suicide. It's the cold, sad reality of a society that often struggles with poverty, depression, violence, addiction and other forms of oppression.

Interestingly, a lot of the communities in Nunavut are not properly equipped to store bodies temporarily, so many of them must make do with makeshift morgues, sometimes using the community freezer or a big sea can, in order to try to slow down decomposition until the burial.

Even once a solution has been found to temporarily house the deceased, burial itself is not easy, not in a land where the ground is frozen most of the year. It took a while for the city of Iqaluit to find the site for a new cemetery, because some of the areas had rocky soil that would make burial difficult; according to one article, most of the land around Iqaluit is glacial till, "thin soil stuffed with gravel and boulders left by receding glaciers."

So burials are not very deep. They certainly aren't six feet deep. Rocks are placed to cover the plots. And Christian crosses mark the spots, a tradition brought by the missionaries to replace the traditional ways, sometimes on a slanting sideways where the permafrost has shifted the ground underneath.