Family lays loved one to rest in the heart of winter

Posted: Tuesday, January 30, 2001

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- A light dusting of snow covers newly mounded soil and a wooden cross marking Daniel ''Beaver'' Savage's gravesite at Birch Hill Cemetery.

The rest of the hilly graveyard, overlooking the city center, lies buried under a white mantle of snowdrifts.

Late every fall, the gates to the city-owned cemetery are locked. The winding lanes fill up with snow during the winter hiatus from funeral processions.

So Savage's burial Jan. 19 was an unusual mid-winter occurrence, requiring the special efforts of a cadre of family, friends and co-workers.

''I am Native and we buried my husband the Native way,'' said Savage's widow, Marilyn Alexander Savage, an Athabascan raised in Fort Yukon.

Although Dan was white, a lifelong Alaskan raised in Fairbanks, Marilyn considered her husband ''almost Native.''

Winter burials are commonplace in the villages. The arduous work of grave digging is shared by family members and friends who volunteer their time and muscle.

First the ground is cleared of snow and a fire is built to melt the frozen earth. The hard labor is done by men, working in shifts, who patiently thaw the ground and dig out the dirt with pickaxes and shovels.

Village women send out hot coffee and sandwiches. When the temperature is very cold to 40 below or more -- the process can take as long as three days.

To bury Dan at Birch Hill Cemetery in January, Marilyn had to petition City Hall, sign a hold-harmless agreement with the city, and pay $500 for a burial plot.

She then contacted Dan's friends and co-workers at the Fairbanks Terminal of the Alaska Railroad, where he was employed.

''He was a real special man, a hard worker who never complained or whined about work, and everybody liked him,'' said Mike Olson, Dan's boss and terminal superintendent.

''We wanted to do this for the family, and be a shoulder for her (Marilyn) to lean on. And it was our way to help in our own grieving process.''

Olson rented a backhoe with a frost bucket for the job. The day before the funeral, about a dozen co-workers, including railroad board chairman Johne Binkley, gathered early in the morning at Birch Hill with shovels. The city had cleared the road, spread gravel and marked the gravesite high on a hill, in the Catholic section of the cemetery near where Dan's mother, Suzanne Savage is buried.

The frost level extended down about 3 1/2 3/8 feet, Olson said. Once the proper depth was dug out, the men took turns shoveling and shaping the grave. The whole job took about five hours.

Fairbanks residents whose loved ones die during the winter months usually wait until spring for final committal. Olson's burial was only the second this winter at Birch Hill.

The city has neither the heavy duty equipment nor budget to excavate gravesites through the cold months, said David Jacoby, public workers director.

From November through April the deceased are stored in a secured crypt at the city-owned cemetery until the ground thaws sufficiently.

The only other local graveyard is Northern Lights Cemetery, which hasn't had a winter burial in several decades.

Long before Dan died Jan. 16 of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, he and Marilyn talked about his impending death and burial.

Originally Dan wanted to be cremated but decided to leave it up to Marilyn, who chose to bury her husband in the traditional Indian manner for several reasons.

''My husband didn't want to be sitting in a freezer somewhere all winter,'' Marilyn said, ''and I didn't want to go through the agony of burying him again in the spring.''

Marilyn also didn't want to take on a huge financial burden with burial expenses. She reflected on her father's death, a decade ago, when her family selected an expensive casket and funeral that took years to pay off.

So Marilyn enlisted family friends Rocky Riley, a carpenter, to build a traditional wooden coffin; and Jay Schrock, an artist, to fashion a wooden cross to mark the gravesite.

Marilyn's sister Audrey Fields and sister-in-law Selina Alexander picked out a midnight blue satin to line the interior of the coffin, trimming it with gold embroidered edging and a rose in each corner. A matching pillow was also stitched.

Marilyn did not buy a new suit to bury her husband in.

''We dressed him in his regular clothes -- Levis, a favorite shirt his daughter gave him, his hat and glasses. He looked pretty comfortable,'' she said.

According to Indian custom, Dan's feet were shod with beaded, fur-trimmed moosehide slippers to dance in when he entered heaven.

''My grandmother would grab him first at dances,'' Marilyn added, smiling at the memory.

Dan and Marilyn met in the mid-1970s while both worked on the trans-Alaska pipeline, married in 1979 and have two grown children.

Throughout Dan's almost three-year illness the couple talked about his impending death and burial.

''This means so much more,'' Marilyn said of the cross-cultural effort by family and friends to lay Dan to rest in a loving, respectful manner. ''It's part of his and our life together.''

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