I never tire of making a side trip to the Ninilchik (Alaska) Russian Orthodox Church (Holy Transfiguration of Our Lord Church) on my way to Homer. What draws me to that place? Perhaps it is the idyllic setting of onion- shaped gold spheres against the sunny blue sky which canopies the Cook Inlet and distant white-topped Mt Redoubt and and Mt Iliamna in the Chigmit mountain range. Or perhaps it is a somber drippy gray day with views cut-short and focused on the nearby tall green grass and magenta fireweed; all sparkled with water-jewels. On such a day, the gray streaks in the time-worn white wooden fence pickets are vivid.
Maybe it is the mysterious-to-me personalized individual cemetery plots, some within stubby picket fences. The Items placed on the burial mounds offer a glimpse of personalities and interests: a bird book, stuffed animal, memento, or a picture. Some plots contain Thumbelina-size landscapes. I can picture loved ones on their hands and knees, slowly and deliberately arranging rocks, shells, sticks, sand, and short vegetation.
Possibly the lure is the intriguing colony of family lots with names such as Cooper, Oskolkoff, Kvasnikoff, Jackinsky, Encelewski – all descendents of the first settlers who were indigenous Alutiq and Russian fur traders.
On the other hand, my propensity may have to do with my sixth-grade best friend, Karen Isaak, who has a son buried in the cemetery: Matthew Encelewski. A son born in the same month and year as my own son. A son killed instantly and tragically as a teenager. Regardless if I brake to visit the grave site, I ponder this loss when I drive through Ninilchik.
On a recent trip, I shook the moisture off my umbrella and stepped inside the small church. A few white candles burned softly; their steady flames startled momentarily by the draft of the opened door. Icons filled the tall walls that rose unproportionally high above the small enclave. A priest sat around the corner softly reading, praying, and chanting – until I moved forward.
Then the large Native priest, with hair in a thick, gray, ponytail against his black robe stood up. I was caught off guard by his quick questions, wrapped in a broad smile. “Do you know what “orthodox” means?” “Do you know why I’m studying for the priesthood?” “Do you know why the crosses in the cemetery have the angled piece at the bottom?
He took the rapt look on my face as an invitation to continue, and started with the cross. “The top bar represents the sign of mockery that Pilate ordered for Christ’s cross – Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. The middle bar is of course on which Christ’s hands were nailed. Finally, the slanted foot rest. Russian Orthodox tradition holds that the upper end points to heaven, where the first thief, who regretted his sin went (Today shalt though be in Paradise with me); and the lower end points to where the non-repentant thief went – separation from God.”
That was the simple, yet theologically-deep explanation of the crosses scattered throughout the cemetery.
Just then, he needed to attend other business. I went outside to wander about the crosses, the earthy dioramas, and the tangled undergrowth which makes every effort to hide any remembrance of lives lived, joys shared, hearts broken, and history made.
The Old Village of Ninilchik, which lies down by the peaceful river which flows into the Cook Inlet, is filled with history. At one time there was a walking tour map. Now, the history is awakened by walking — and question-asking of a local shop-owner or resident. Whether new or old to the Kenai Peninsula, I’d encourage very passerby to pull off the Sterling Highway and pause for a moment of spiritual quiet – no matter the weather.
- I contemplated what might be arranged on my burial mounds: a stuffed Golden Retriever, rolling pin, lingonberry (Alaskan cranberry) plants, a picture of my children and grandboy?
- What items might be placed on your burial mound as a snapshot of your personality and interests?
Thank you to Karen Isaak Encelewski and Wayne Leman for your peer critique, corrections, and input.