Nome cemetery holds Open House
The City of Nome is in the process to formalize procedures for burials at Nome’s cemetery.
Historically, there was little administration or record keeping and what records exist are often incomplete or inaccurate. Ownership of the graveyard has changed hands, further complicating documentation of who is buried and where. And the fire of 1934 destroyed records. The result is a cemetery with unmarked graves and confusion over where new graves can be placed.
On Saturday the Nome Municipal Cemetery, it’s formal name, held an open house with a walking history tour to explain the process of bringing the facility up to modern standards for burial. That process began in the early 2000s when Cussy Kauer and Debbie Redburn started the project to gather existing data, compile it and publish it for the public record.
The cemetery is now working to locate missing graves, identify unmarked ones, and in general, organize the process of burial for the City of Nome. An Anchorage firm which uses penetrating ground radar to identify graves is working to locate and map undocumented graves.
“We will have a modern, accurate, standard that we will hold our cemetery up to,” said cemetery manager Dawn Ubelaker. “We will bring the death process in Nome to the 21st century.”
Last month the City hired Paul Kudla to be a caretaker.
“I’m the caretaker, the groundskeeper, I’m the cemetarian,” said Kudla at the open house.
“The biggest issue is this is all tundra so nothing is even. It’s hard to run even the small lawnmower. But we have the big power mower and we’ve been cutting some willows down. And that big mower, it will get stuck in this tall grass. So I find the Weed Wacker is the easiest machine to get through all this.”
Dawn Ubelaker does the paperwork and will give Kudla maps of specific areas. Kudla is then tasked with finding and identifying each gravesite in that area. “It’s going to take a while to find them all,” he said. “Nome’s got just one graveyard but way out in the back section we have the Catholic section, the veterans are scattered all over, the Pioneer section has some very old ones. Cutting down some of this grass I have located several markers, headstones, that nobody knew were there.” There is an epidemic trench where victims of the 1918 Spanish Flu devastation are buried. “Most of them are all very young, babies, because of the epidemics,” said Kudla. “So I’m finding a lot of graves for babies. It touches my heart to take care of all the young ones.”
The Nome Public Works Department now facilitates the burials. There are no professional burial services in Nome so the process can be complicated for a family that has lost a loved one. “We do not have a casket manufacturer, we don’t have an undertaker, we don’t have a funeral home,” said Ubelaker. “For that kind of thing, for body preparation, most people are sent to Anchorage. The social workers at Norton Sound Hospital have been instrumental in helping people find caskets and knowing what to do. When someone dies we don’t all know what to do, what the process is.” The city morgue, which is located at the cemetery, is a utilitarian facility for storing bodies. The burial season runs from late May until October. If the ground is frozen the remains are stored at the morgue through the winter.
Finding unmarked graves
Instrumental in the meticulous process of locating unmarked graves is the Anchorage firm Logic Geophysics. Their ground penetrating radar looks at forms beneath the surface and can identify a casket or a skeleton. Dr. Esther Babcock, who owns the company, explains it. “This is essentially radar. Everybody knows what radar does in the air. It sends out a signal that bounces off something and comes back. This uses a different frequency and sends a wave down into the ground.” The reflected waves produce an indistinct visual image. “I collect all this data in a gridded pattern and then I process it in a computer and it makes a map.” That map is not a picture as much as an image, which requires interpretation. “I say ‘That looks like a grave’ because I’ve done this a bunch and I know how to read it,” she said.
Noting that her specialty has much in common with medical radiology, Babcock explains how her processing of the data is part science and part practical experience in looking at the data. “And at the end I’ll process all of that data and look at the grave locations and give the results of where the unmarked burials are located.”
Her “sled” with the instruments has a GPS receiver mounted on it. By talking to her larger GPS station located in the cemetery, Babcock is able to establish coordinates down to a few centimeters. “This isn’t 100 percent accurate, it can miss things,” she said. “The typical stat for this tool at gravesites all over the world is eighty-five maybe ninety but mostly eighty-five percent success rate. This is the best tool that anyone knows of to find them.”
Dr. Babcock is assisted in the work by Caleb Babcock, who describes himself as “a field hand.”
Lew Tobin is a member of Nome’s Pioneers of Alaska Igloo Nr. 1 , one of the groups which maintained its own section. Others include the Catholic Church, the Masonic Order, the Oddfellows, Moose Lodge, and The Eagles.
“We were the first Pioneers club in Alaska,” said Tobin. “We have a Pioneer section over there. When I first came here in the ‘70s the graves were dug by hand or John Handeland would come in. He was always volunteering his time. When you buried a person you had to fill it in yourself. You had to figure out how to get the coffin down in there. We discovered why the handles were on the coffins for that reason. You know, after we spilled a few. And then you had to fill it up yourself. So everybody brought a shovel with them to the burials.”
A clear and organized system for management of the Nome Municipal Cemetery was adopted by ordinance by the Nome City Council in 2017. The facility’s current staff are doing what they can to bring order to the burial process. “Prior to 2017 when someone passed away the family would just come up, pick a spot, bury that person and then report that spot back to City Hall,” said Dawn Ubelaker. “Because of our inaccurate, incomplete data, sometimes they would pick a spot and there would already be somebody buried there. And there was just no record of it. So they’d have to change the burial location of the new internment and sometimes that relocation got reported to City Hall and sometimes it didn’t.”
Those planning on burial in Nome can count on a higher grade of eternal peace than has been available up until now. Your grave will be marked and documented, on file and undoubtedly online as well.