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When climate change threatens cemeteries, how do communities cope?

As permafrost thaws, coastlines erode and riverbanks slump, Northwest Territories communities face a particularly sensitive question: how to protect those who have passed on.

The news came to Ray Ruben last summer: On a jut of land known as Cape Parry, erosion was eating away at the coast, bringing the shoreline closer and closer to his relatives’ graves.

Ruben, who is Paulatuk’s mayor, was born in Cape Parry. Although no one lives at the site any more, it served as a radar station during the Cold War. People from the Paulatuk region had homes at the site and used the area to harvest, according to Ruben. Cape Parry’s cemetery was used before Paulatuk was developed, he said.

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So when a contractor doing routine maintenance in the area last summer called Ruben to alert him of the receding coastline, he was concerned.

“Those are our people, our families that are being threatened,” he said. His grandmother, several of his cousins and his brother are buried along the coast.

Ruben and other community members planned to visit the cemetery last summer to get a better sense of the issue, but logistical challenges and bad weather meant the flight had to be postponed until 2023.

Although the urgency of the situation is still unclear, the community will eventually have to do something to deal with the threat, Ruben said. Coming up with a plan is no easy task, though, and some options run counter to beliefs about how to respect those who have passed.

Having to transport graves back to Paulatuk “would be just horrible,” Ruben said, but allowing them to wash away would be even worse.

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A photo of Cape Parry taken in 1916. George H Wilkins/Wikimedia Commons

Residents of Paulatuk are not alone in facing this problem.

Throughout the Northwest Territories, climate change is wreaking havoc on cemeteries. In Dettah, Behchokǫ̀, Tsiigehtchic, Fort McPherson and Tuktoyaktuk, graveyards have been affected by flooding, erosion, permafrost thaw and slumping. Sites that were intended as eternal resting places are coming up against the harsh realities of a rapidly warming world.

Several communities are now mulling over a similar question: what to do about climate change’s impacts on one of their most sensitive assets.

“Discussions like that are happening,” said Lucy Kuptana, Tuktoyaktuk’s senior administrative officer. “They’re going to happen in Tuk, but they’re going to happen in every community up the Mackenzie Valley, right to the Arctic coast, right to all the Arctic islands.”

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“It’s a big, big question,” she said.

Uncovered graves

In Tsiigehtchic, the cemetery is perched on top of a hill, next to a church that overlooks the Arctic Red River. Over the years, the river has been eroding the hillside, and last spring, bones from the graves closest to the river were exposed.

“This is not the first time it happened,” said Mickey Andre, Tsiigehtchic’s foreman.

The community has been dealing with the problem for roughly a decade, according to Chief Phillip Blake. Back then, when remains emerged, the community put posts into the ground to stabilize the hill as a temporary solution. “They seem to be holding up, but 10 years is a long time,” he said.

As erosion continues, the situation is getting worse, according to Andre. Walking trails in the area have disappeared and five housing units next to the hill had to be moved, he said. Although the community has filled in the hillside to cover the graves, they get exposed every other year, he said.

The community of Tsiigehtchic. sf-dvs/Flickr

Beyond the erosion, Andre worries that one day, the hillside will collapse into the river. Along the Mackenzie, he has seen several brush-covered slopes slide from one year to the next.

Already, the ground around the church and within the cemetery’s boundaries is beginning to crack, according to Andre and Jeff Mercier, Tsiigehtchic’s senior administrative officer. If the area were to get heavy rain, the slope could release.

“It’s just a matter of time,” Andre said. When the worst happens, he said, “we don’t know how many graves are going to go.”

Andre said that something needs to be done – and soon. According to Mercier, the current approach of covering up graves is a “band-aid solution.”

The community is now looking for a longer-term fix. Covering the slope with vegetation might slow the erosion, for example, Mercier said. Andre thinks that creating a rocky ledge partway down the hill might keep the top part steady for a few more years.

According to Blake, residents might have to start planning for another cemetery in the near future, especially since the current cemetery is filling up.

The community is still exploring and considering its options, but the path forward is more likely to involve protecting graves than relocating them. Moving graves, Mercier said, would be “a last resort.”

Part of a bigger problem

In Fort McPherson, the impacts of climate change may require residents to consider moving not only graves but also key pieces of infrastructure.

“At the very least, about two-thirds of our community has problems right now,” said Richard Nerysoo, Fort McPherson’s outgoing mayor. A 2019 study that assessed geohazards and slope stability in the community identified significant issues stemming from flooding, erosion and permafrost thaw, he said. (The study’s findings have yet to be publicly released, according to Nerysoo.)

Like in Tsiigehtchic, Nerysoo said cracks have been forming in the graveyard and along the bank of the Peel River, which runs along the community’s western edge. The ground has fractured elsewhere in the hamlet, he said, indicating that permafrost is thawing and the ground is moving.

Looking ahead to the next 50 years, Nerysoo said, “you get an indication that maybe up to 35 feet of the community is going to slide in toward the Peel River bed area.”

That means several homes, the health centre, an office complex, a church and the cemetery are at risk, according to Nerysoo. The community will have to discuss whether to move some of these structures and some – if not all – of the graves, he said.

“There are some really big decisions that are going to have to be made.”

The Anglican church and cemetery in Fort McPherson. Adam Jones/Flickr

Although the issues are wide-ranging, Nerysoo expects the idea of moving graves to be particularly challenging. “It’s hard for people to get around that whole conversation because it’s just something, historically, our people do not touch,” he said.

“When you’re talking about graveyards,” he explained, “you’re talking about very, very respected people.” With that comes a continued respect for where those people are, he said.

Waiting to see what happens is a huge gamble, though. At some point, the community will have to decide what to do, Nerysoo said.

The community is in the early phases of sharing information with residents, seeking their advice and having conversations about how to move forward, Nerysoo said. Whatever the community decides, he said, “it needs to be strategic, thoughtful, Elder-led and leadership-respected.”

“If we do that, I think we’re going to be OK.”

Buying time

Tuktoyaktuk is at a similar stage in the conversation.

According to Kuptana, the topic of the cemetery came up at a meeting a few weeks ago, in which members of the community and researchers discussed the future of Tuktoyaktuk.

The science has been clear: There will come a point when the community must slowly move inland, Kuptana said. According to one estimate, much of the hamlet and most of Tuktoyaktuk Island, which protects the harbour, will be lost to erosion by 2050 without substantial intervention.

An aerial view of Tuktoyaktuk. Adam Jones/Flickr

Although the community hasn’t made any decisions yet, Kuptana said, the prospect of a managed retreat has raised questions about what will happen to the cemetery.

Right now, the community’s main cemetery is next to the coast, where a combination of permafrost thaw, increasingly forceful waves and rising sea levels are swallowing up to a metre of coastline every year, according to the CBC. Areas near the community are eroding much faster.

Erwin Elias, Tuktoyaktuk’s mayor, said erosion leading up toward the cemetery has been particularly rapid of late. “It’s been very noticeable this year,” he told Cabin Radio.

The community has taken several steps to manage the problem. Last year, a new cemetery opened farther inland. But for “sentimental reasons,” Elias said, many residents prefer the old one.

“You have some people that, regardless, want to be buried with their own family,” he said.

Another strategy has been to defend the shoreline. Since the 1970s, a variety of techniques have been used to slow erosion, including installing a row of boulders and cement slabs along parts of the coast. The interventions have helped “here and there,” Elias said.

Looking for a longer-term solution, the community has applied for federal funding to build additional fortifications that would protect the majority of the coast on the west side of Tuktoyaktuk, including the cemetery, Elias said.

“We’re trying to mitigate the problem and slow things down to buy us time,” Elias said. The last thing he wants is to see coffins floating in the ocean.

But no matter what the community does, the land will continue to give way to the sea. “You can only protect for so long,” Kuptana said.

A map of communities mentioned in this report
A map of communities mentioned in this report.

People have begun reflecting on their options. Should they move graves or leave them and let nature take its course?

Although Kuptana isn’t advocating for the cemetery to be moved, she thinks there would be value in talking to engineers, anthropologists, scientists, and others with expertise on the subject. “I’m sure we’re not the first community where cemeteries had to be relocated,” she said, suggesting that finding the most respectful solution might mean learning from others, all while including the community and considering culture, traditions and heritage.

Kuptana points out that burial doesn’t have such a long history in the area. “In our culture, when people passed, they were exposed to the environment,” she said. “They weren’t buried in the ground because we didn’t have the tools to bury into the permafrost.”

“It’s not too far in the distant past.”

Still, she said, the community faces tough decisions in the next 10 to 15 years. The cemetery has come to be a core part of the community. “Everyone sees it every day,” she said.

Although Ruben hasn’t visited the cemetery at Cape Parry for more than a decade, deciding what to do is no less emotional. If he had to choose today, he thinks the best option might be to relocate the graves farther inland.  

If nothing else, the move could offer an opportunity to re-commemorate loved ones, according to Ruben. After years of weathering, names have faded from the crosses that mark the graves, he said. “I’d be really happy if we could get new crosses.”

He said the community could set up a new place and, again, send people off in the right way.


This article is produced under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0 licence through the Wilfrid Laurier University Climate Change Journalism Fellowship.