As permafrost thaws, Western Alaska village cemeteries sink into swampland


As the permafrost thaws, Kongiganak’s cemetery is turning into swampland. (Teresa Cotsirilos / KYUK)


KONGIGANAK — On a crisp day in September, the village of Kongiganak, or Kong, filed into a little white church and laid Maggie Mary Otto to rest.
The service was crowded. An elder and de facto marriage counselor, Otto was beloved. She was the kind of person who cooked steaming plates of walrus for her community every January for Russian Orthodox Christmas – even though she wasn’t Orthodox herself.

After the viewing, Otto’s pallbearers carried her casket outside, placed it on a metal cart, and attached it to the back of a four-wheeler. Kong’s cemetery is a 10-minute drive on a boardwalk over marshy tundra. A procession of four-wheelers followed the casket to a rust-colored hill and a smattering of chalk-white crosses. Rather than lowering Otto’s body into the ground, pallbearers placed her casket on a low wooden platform, raised about 6 inches above the ground on blocks. A half-dozen men lifted a white, wooden box and placed it over her casket to protect it from the elements, covering it completely.

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