Nome Municipal Cemetery sees changes in procedures
A newly formed ad hoc cemetery committee met with the public in an open house format last week to invite input for a more organized and orderly future of the Nome Municipal Cemetery.
“We need to establish procedures and protocol for burying our dead,” said Nome Mayor Richard Beneville. “It’s a difficult time for people who just lost a loved one and we need to come up with a protocol that says, ‘this is what you do.”
Aside from proper protocol, Beneville said, “First, we need to sort out who is there and where?”
There are unmarked graves, crosses knocked over by time or musk oxen and names faded on markers. In 110 years of Nome’s municipal existence, a lot of its history is buried there with the dead.
Until recently, a family in need of a burial went to the city for a $25 permit and then the next call was to Charley Reader of Q Trucking and Andy Miller who excavated the plot at the cemetery. “I recognize the stress involved when a loved one dies,” Miller said. “I try to lessen the burden by accommodating the family.”
Miller said Reader provides the equipment needed free of charge and then he sets out to prepare the burial site. First, he asks the family to pick two sites, to give him the option that if the first site is already occupied that he can excavate at the second site. They did not charge for their services, Miller said. He’s been donating his time to this task since 1996. He has first hand knowledge of one of the biggest issues the cemetery has: the lack of a comprehensive map that shows who is buried there and where.
Over the last 110 years, burials were done haphazardly. During the meeting Leo Rasmussen noted that the most organized sections of the cemetery were the old Catholic sections and the Mason’s section. City Manager Tom Moran said in an interview that a digitized map of the cemetery exists, but that it is incomplete. “People have added graves and the record keeping has been poor,” he said. In addition, people just went up there and buried their dead, without informing the city.
Over the years, Cussy Kauer and Debbie Redburn have spent countless hours volunteering at the cemetery, cleaning up, identifying graves and matching them with existing maps at city hall, said longtime city employee Dana Handeland. “I worked alongside Cussy to help people fill out the paperwork and issue the permits, and then we looked at the map for a burial site,” described Handeland. However, the maps did not always reflect the reality on the ground. This summer, two young Rec Center summer employees, one of them is Erik Handeland, are continuing the task to clear the brush and reporting their findings to city hall.
Don’t the Pioneers have great records of who is buried in Nome? asked Mayor Beneville during the meeting. “Yes,” answered Lew Tobin, “We’ve got great records, but they’re so full of black mold that they’re sitting in somebody’s freezer and nobody wants to touch them.”
According to Moran, an old map from the1980’s gave people an inkling who lies where, but the sisyphean work of matching who’s buried where to a comprehensive map is one of the first steps that need to be taken for an orderly course of action for the future. Cemetery committee member Julia Farris said she’d be tackling that task.
In 2013, the city ordered a ground-penetrating radar analysis, finding 96 anomalous sets “that hold the potential to be related to human burials” according to the report. The anomalies were found south, west and north outside the known perimeter of the existing cemetery. This information is another piece to the puzzle, and indicates which areas are already occupied with unmarked graves and where expansion of the cemetery would be possible.
According to a state statistic, there were 212 deaths in the Nome Census area between 2011 and 2013. In Nome proper, on average, there are approximately 36 deaths per year.
In absence of a funeral home in Nome and the entire region, Norton Sound Health Corporation’s Social Services Director Christine Schultz said she often fulfills a role that helps families through a difficult time: she helps prepare the bodies of the deceased and assists with burial logistics, and information on funding assistance for burials and transportation. She also has at all times two caskets in storage. She said, they are very basic but nice and sturdy and at a price of $2,000 on the low end of the cost spectrum. Schultz also helps the families to navigate the legal requirements and to connect them with financial resources to help pay for burial, casket and transportation costs. In the outlying communities, health aids notify the hospital of a death and, in conjunction with law enforcement, can pronounce a person deceased, but a physician is needed to certify the death over the phone. The death is then reported to the State Medical Examiner, who determines if the body needs to be sent to Anchorage for an autopsy or not. The court issues a burial permit and a transportation permit, when bodies have to be flown back from Anchorage to Nome or from Nome to the regional villages for burial. If a person wants to be buried at camp, the state reviews the request and usually allows burial at camps, Schultz said. Schultz urged families to have a conversation now as to how people want to be buried. “Talk about what your wishes are with your family,” she said. “It sure makes it easier for your family to know what you want ahead of time.”
When people die in their homes in Nome and are then taken by the ambulance to the city morgue, located at the cemetery, a problem surfaces that only a few know: The morgue is a freezer unit and has no table to prepare the dead for burial, nor does it have running water or sewer.
It is very difficult to wash a body when they have been frozen already, said Schultz.
“Often we use wipes, that’s all we can do,” she said.
In the meeting, she requested water and sewer at the morgue. City Manager Moran said that the city has requested a quote from NJUS to begin the process of getting water to the building, located uphill from Seppala Drive.
The informal way of burying the dead at the Nome cemetery is now coming to an end.
Since middle of July, the city has a more formalized protocol, says Moran. People need to call the city, get a burial permit, choose and buy the lot, pay a fee - $50 for a child, $100 for an adult and $25 for an urn spot - and then the city’s Public Works department will excavate the burial site during regular business hours, but only from May through October. The city will also assess a grave preparation fee: $400 for an adult, $200 for a child and $100 for an urn. If a person dies in the wintertime, the remains will be stored in the city morgue, which can store 14 bodies. Moran said that bodies cannot be stored longer than over winter and until the ground thawed enough for a burial. Moran said the city would not get into the business of a funeral home, but it will accommodate on a case-by-case basis that families use the public works garage to wash and dress the deceased.
Beneville said during the meeting that the city will “run into a point where we have to close a portion of the cemetery and open another one.” This issue was identified as one of the top items on the to-do list. Committee member Leo Rasmussen suggested to survey and create a plat of the graveyard.
Next steps are to mark the unmarked graves and then a site needs to be selected for future burials.
Moran said, an area north of the cemetery and south of Little Creek Road would be the logical area of expansion and needs to be prepared for use as the expanded cemetery, with an orderly grid and the potential that families can buy lots to assure a resting place for their loved ones.