Bro. Steve Donley – The Worst Sound I’ve Ever Heard

The arctic is filled with unique sounds. Snowmobiles, outboard motors, crunching snow, ice popping under the stress of weight, and the sound of silence. Most of these sounds a person can get used to and even appreciate as an identifier of the far north. However, one sound that I will never get accustomed to is the sound of a handful of dirt thrown onto a coffin laying six feet deep in a grave.

Funerals of the Inuit, First Nations and Metis are not the sterile, orchestrated events that have become the standard for non-native people.

The typical northern funeral is held in the building with the largest seating capacity in the community. Usually this is the school gymnasium. 200 people is not unusual for even the smallest of hamlets and villages.

The coffin might be a beautiful hand made work of art constructed of wood by a local craftsman and the fabric lining the coffin is hand sewn and installed by women of the community which might include several family members.

The body is dressed by the family and may or may not be embalmed.

The coffin is transported sometimes by pickup truck. The pall bearers sit around the truck bed steadying the coffin and a slow progression is made to the cemetery.

Traditionally the grave is dug by the family. In permafrost they have to build fires to melt the permanently frozen soil and then shovel out the muck. The fire has to be rebuilt and the process repeated until a depth of six foot met.

The pall bearers carry the coffin to the grave where planks are laid across the grave and the coffin is places to rest on the planks.

Ropes are then threaded under the coffin and through the handles and slowly the coffin is lowered by hand after the planks are removed.

Once the crowd regathers at the grave side, the preacher stands at the head of the open grave. A prayer is given, some words of comfort are spoken and then it happens.

An un-unwritten code of the north requires that the preacher must repeat the old phrase, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

The preacher then takes a handful of dirt and drops it on the coffin. The sound is haunting.

Dirt hitting a wooden casket is an awful sound. It sounds even worse in the frigid northern winter. It is a sound marking the end of life.

Family members then make their way to the casket and throw a handful of dirt into the grave and every time dirt hits the wooden coffin, chills run down your spine. The family usually begins to sob, cry, then eventually a wail erupts adding to the awfulness of the scene.

The men of the community then grab shovels and manually, shovelful by shovelful, fill in the grave. Sometimes the crowd sings gospel hymns. Sometimes the only sound is that of dirt hitting the casket until it is covered.

In defence of this stark and old fashioned way, I must say it does offer closure. There is no vagueness of purpose. When a grieving family member walks away from the graveside, it is over. Final. A hard event, but a completed one.

I’ve stood at the head of the grave while saved and lost were buried. As the saved are buried, I have confidence this is not the end. The dead in Christ shall rise. This horrible sound is not the end. I will hear them speak, see them walk, and worship the Lord with them.

But as the lost are buried, I know this is not the end either. The awful sound of frozen clumps of dirt hitting the casket is not the last horrible sound heard that will be associated with them. The future holds a great white throne judgment for lost men and women. The sentence will be exacted and lost souls will be cast into the lake of fire.

That, has to be the worst sight and sound ever.

Sterile and practised funerals offer a facade of peace and comfort. But the grave is only a temporary holding place for the bodies of the saved and the lost. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord, and conversely the first second after death a lost man’s soul wakes up in hell. Reunion with the body is either to the incorruption of salvation in Christ or the corruption of the lake of fire as Christ rejecters.

The greatest sight and sound is that of a sinner kneeling and asking God for mercy. On the mission field there are no buffers to reality. Life and death are real and raw. Our Gospel must be real, un-changed and at full strength to give hope to the hopeless around the world.

Steve Donley
Missionary to the Canadian Arctic