I’m not sure when my fascination with cemeteries arose. It is definitely a relatively recent thing. But, I love wandering through them, looking at the headstones and their adornments and examining their inscriptions, seeing how different people mark the death of their loved ones. Most recently, observing how people reconnect and maintain their bonds with deceased loved ones at a cemetery in Trinidad for All Saints Day. Usually this fascination I have with cemeteries becomes obvious when I travel, because I have free time that I am naturally using to explore anyways, but also because the different cultures have different burial methods. But, I have been known to take a summer run through the Lakewood Cemetery here every now and then…sometimes meandering the seemingly never-ending grounds with my camera, capturing the beautiful monuments at different angles amongst the trees and adjacent to the lake.
Naturally, when I read about an old Russian cemetery tucked into forest in the center of Sitka, a town on my Alaska itinerary a few months back, I put it first on my list of sight seeing priorities. Luckily, having met a wonderful and fascinating Canadian woman on my ferry over from Juneau, I had a partner in crime. First thing off the ferry, we set off to wander about town, trying to get a feeling for the lay of the land…with the end goal of finding the Russian Cemetery. Sitka has a wonderful feel to it. It’s not just the mild climate, the mountainous surroundings, or the scattering of islands throughout the Sound. It’s not just the quaint old town feel that comes with these Alaskan fishing towns. But, it stems from a unique mix of cultural influences that makes it a bit more interesting (at least to me) than the other Alaskan cities I’d visited. A strong Russian influence heads up to an equally rich native Tlingit heritage. Key to Russian international trade, most notably of sea otter pelts, Sitka was at one time the capital of Russian America. And, you see signs of this presence everywhere in Sitka.
The Russian Cemetery has no obvious entrance, but it is not difficult to find. Following Lincoln Street down towards the ANB Harbor will put you in the general vicinity, but I recommend using a map to find it. It is a very short walk and definitely worth the effort. The narrow foot paths will wind you through dense vegetation dotted with grave markers that are toppling and tilting askew from overgrown roots. The feel of peat moss under your feet as you wander through the ferns and spruces gives you a strong connection with where you are, a real Pacific rainforest.
What I found most interesting is that the cemetery felt like it had not been maintained in years. Statues without their heads or genitals (a clear sign of vandalism). Moss covered headstones at the verge of toppling. Yet, several graves clearly had been recently decorated with flowers and showed signs of visitor attention. This cemetery is over 200 years old, and gravestones overgrown with ferns and moss were decorated with beautiful bouquets of artificial flowers. I really enjoyed exploring this cemetery finding interesting grave markers around every corner and over every little hill, and the forest setting definitely gave it a mystical feel.