Michel and I drove up the hill above Dawson City to do a self-tour through the Klondike pioneer cemeteries. The tourist information center hands out a brochure to help guide you.
In the 1800’s, society was very stratified. Your rank within the hierarchy was based on age, sex, employment, race, religion, family kinship and fraternal association. Just about anything you could think of would influence your position in society.
In our society, although there is stratification and social ranking – there has been strenuous efforts put out to mitigate it – with the result being that there is that are groupings are far larger; ‘differences’ are more tolerated.
What I found absolutely fascinating was fineness of the granularity of their society. And how it was clearly displayed in the grave yards.
There were several cemeteries.
None of them very big.
There were cemeteries based on religion: Catholic, various Protestant brands or Jewish. You got an extra special cemetery if you officially belonged to a religious order – such as a nun.
There were cemeteries based on occupation: Police, or government official.
And there were cemeteries based on fraternity, such as the Y.O.O.P.; which stands for the Yukon Order of Old Pioneers. But ‘pioneers’ couldn’t be women, they had to be men. One woman spent quite some time fighting for admission on the basis that she’d been a pioneer too, but to no avail.
Within each cemetery there were further sub-groupings (and the break-outs were not, of course identical in each cemetery – it’s just what each group wanted to do). There was a section for very young children. Another cemetery had a section for “Catholic Natives.” But none of the Catholic native graves got names on their crosses. Just crosses. Some of the cemeteries had sections were the wealthier patrons were buried. (They seemed to get the better view sections as well as the more impressive markers). For a while, there seemed to be a tradition of planting a tree on the grave – but again, this custom was only followed in one area.
When you walked through the graves, what really strikes you is that Dawson City was a one sex town. These graves are wall-to-wall men. And most of them seemed to have died young. Late teens to early twenties seemed to be a good age to go. If you were buried in your 40’s, you were definitely getting up there. There were a few people that passed in their late 60’s and 70’s but that’s getting to be a minority.
And they came from all over the world. Russia. Europe. South America. All kids, fresh from home – hoping to make it big.
The cemeteries have been largely reconstructed. Most of the crosses are not original, although enough still remain to give it a flavor.
When Dawson City’s population crashed from 40,000 to 1000, the town couldn’t keep up the graves, so they were left disintegrating until recently.
Most of the original grave markers were made out of tin, then artistically painted to look like stone. Stone monuments would have had to have been shipped from down south via the Yukon River and were prohibitively expensive.
One thing that we did notice as we walked through the cemeteries was that they were all completely covered in wild strawberries. It is the biggest most abundant crop I’ve ever seen in my entire life.