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Burying the Dead in Alaska Is More Complicated Than You'd Think

Death in Alaska is complicated, but this guy seems to have it figured out.

by Cody Liska
Apr 27 2015, 5:49pm

Photo by Ryan Earp

Bob Ferrell in his office. Photo by the author

Living in Alaska can be a lot like dying in Alaska. Both have the makings of a good story, the difference being whether you're the one telling it or not. If you're telling it, then one of two things is possible: Either you survived or you were never in danger. If you're not telling it, you're probably dead. And if you're dead, chances are you're dealing with Bob Ferrell.

"This is your favorite undertaker," Bob Ferrell says from across the table. He's a short, squat guy with a smile that seems out of place in a funeral home. "That's what I say when I call my friends."

Alaska is a melting pot for the entire world. There's a large Korean community, Polish community, Russian community, Filipino community, and Samoan community, among others. And when those people move here, they bring their experiences and their customs, in life and in death, with them.

"One day we may be handling a Korean family's funeral. The next day maybe we're handling someone who was visiting from Michigan," Bob tells me. "If you're not flexible, not willing to do what the people want, then you're not going to make it."

That's the job of the Undertaker: to fulfill the family's wishes, so that they can properly grieve. Because in this business, you're not really dealing with the dead. You're dealing with the family, the friends, and the loved ones left behind. "If the family is heading down the wrong road, where somewhere down the line they are going to have to see a psychiatrist, I will intervene and say, 'I don't think we should do this, and this is the reason why,'" Bob tells me. A bad grieving experience can cause serious, long-term emotional damage. Which is why Bob agreed to embalm his friend's dad in a sitting position and posture his body on top of his favorite recliner for the viewing ceremony.

"[His family] brought his recliner from home, his side table, his lamp, and his TV, and we set it all up," Bob says. "We dressed him in his normal clothing and put his glasses on. On Sundays, the grandkids would sit next to his chair and visit with him while he sat with his word puzzles. He'd be sleeping in his chair with his puzzle book and pen in his hand. So, that's how we got him set up. When the grandkids came into the ceremony for the first time, they just came into a room and there was grandpa in grandpa's chair and everything was cool. They went up, said goodbye to grandpa and they weren't afraid. The kids had a good grieving experience. My friend and his wife had a good grieving experience."

Photo by the author.

Prior to World War II, an undertaker's job looked a lot different. Ceremonies were practically identical. They began with a visitation the evening before the service—family and friends gathered at a location (a house or funeral home) to express sympathy for the deceased. The service was held the following day at a church. Then, after the service, everyone went to the cemetery to give their final goodbyes. "It didn't matter if you were Episcopal, Catholic, Lutheran, or Baptist, it was all pretty much the same thing," Bob says. All that uniformity went out the window with the Baby Boomers. How we speak about and remember the dead began to take precedence over shoving bodies in the ground and being done with it. Nowadays, for instance, "sharing" has become a common practice at funerals—people in attendance share memories of the deceased.

Bob grew up in the 50s in Snohomish, Washington ("Warshington," he says with a hard R), a small town known for its antiques. By the time he was 15, he was working at a funeral home, washing cars, mowing lawns, and hosing off driveways. He had no intention of becoming an undertaker, not yet at least, he just needed money. Then again, he had no intention of moving to Alaska, either. That is, until he was 26, fresh out of mortuary school, and five years into his first marriage.

"Our families were interfering with our marriage. We wanted to get as far away as possible, so we flipped a coin: Heads, we're going to Alaska. Tails, we're going to Florida," Bob tells me. "I'm not sure if it made sense, but that's what we did."

Related: Death in a Can

Alaska isn't known for its easy way of life, but it presents a set of especially unique challenges to undertakers. Because of the extremely low temperatures, there are only about four months out of the year during which it's possible to bury a body. For the other eight, the ground is frozen solid. So bodies that aren't cremated need to be kept in winter storage. These storage facilities—kept at freezing temperatures for obvious reasons—range from converted garages, like the one at Angelus Memorial in Anchorage, to a couple morgue coolers like the ones at Elmendorf Air Force Base. With a storage capacity of 80 bodies, the Angelus Memorial facility is the largest one in the state.

"Anything that you can think of, I've probably buried it."—Bob Ferrell

"[The Angelus Memorial facility] is made out of two-by-fours and plywood. Inside, it's kind of tiered. You have like four tiers of cribs and you just slide the casket in and that's where it stays. [It's] like a little cubbyhole," Bob tells me. "Come springtime, we take them out for burial."

The Angelus Memorial Winter Storage Facility. Photo by the author.

Bob has been burying the dead for 42 years. "Anything that you can think of, I've probably buried it," he says with a certain even-toned inflection that seems to convey a mixture of callousness and empathy, if there is such a thing. Thirty of those years have been spent burying the dead in Alaska. Victims of ATV accidents, snowmobile accidents, fishing accidents, mining accidents, airplane accidents, moose attacks, bear maulings, exposure—"a person traveling from one village to another in the dead of winter, their snowmobile may fall through the ice, they get wet, get out, curl up next to a tree, and they die. Almost anything you can think of we deal with. We get a lot of difficult cases that you would seldom see down in the Lower 48. I think the first bear mauling that I handled up here, in the early 80s, it just kind of took me aback because I hadn't been around that. Like what the bear would eat off the human and stuff like that."

By any standard, this is a difficult profession. Bob's personal life is evidence of that. "I'm on marriage number three if that tells you anything," he says with a shrug. If you get a call at 2 AM, it's not a job where you can prescribe two aspirin and have your patient call you in the morning. "When you've had a tragedy in your family, you need it taken care of now. I have missed, I can't tell you how many holidays, dinners, school plays, and birthdays because I've had to take care of someone else's family."

In the end, everyone goes back to their roots. A church, a synagogue, a mosque, home, wherever our foundation was laid, that's where we find our final comfort and solace. Because we're all creatures of habit who return to that familiar place from whence we came.

Cody Liska lives in Alaska and runs Crude Magazine.