How to bury family in a town that may never have actually existed.
“The crows seemed to be calling his name, thought Caw.”
You wake early on a Monday, get into dress clothes, then drive 250 km out of downtown Calgary, southwest to an old mining town at the Alberta/BC border, for the funeral of a cousin you’ve never met. The morning fog drops right down to the road, which twists and rises and dives through the Foothills before exploding into the forest-and-peak splendor of The Crowsnest Pass. A realm in the full-blown Tolkien sense, the Pass swells up into the Rocky Mountains, right down to the Montana border. Within its embrace is the most cursed stretch of towns in Canada.
The Pass opens with the silhouette of a single tree growing leafless from a solid sandstone ridge. Known locally as the Burmis Tree, this rare species of limber pine has been gnarled into a beckoning hand by seven centuries of Chinook winds. Named after a town that’s named after a pair of settlers (Burns & Kemmis), the Burmis Tree signals that the Frank Slide is next, then Hillcrest and, in less than ten minutes, Blairmore.
There’s a tingle of déjà vu as you step into your late cousin’s house in Blairmore—a house lived in as thoroughly as any you have ever entered. An orangey shag carpet spreads across the front room, its matted roots soaked in three decades of nicotine. There’s a sofa. Scratched panel walls. Peeling linoleum. The curtains are thick and linty. A cribbage table straddles the kitchen area, its Formica top cracked in a parochial tarantula pattern.
Your stomach is knotted. You’ve made no effort in your cousin’s life to deserve coming here. Big middle-aged men they call “the boys”—as in “wonder why the boys are so late”—stumble in one by one. Tom. Todd. Teddy. Travis. Trev. Mustaches kept like the carpet and skin lived in like the house. Bone-crushing handshakes. Size 13 Brooks running shoes caked in mud, strewn near the screen door. Rye and flat ginger ale quickly poured. A rabidness in their eyes as they concentrate on keeping the pace down at sip, gazes trailing off to the cribbage table.
Not until the daughter arrives, thirtyish with a bouquet under her arm, would you realize it’s even a funeral. Her mascara’s smeared. The boys dutifully guide her to the table. No collared shirts, no double-breasted jackets, no ironed trousers. Tom does the introductions. “Pleased to meet ya.” Black Lee jeans and flannel shirts. “Lung cancer, eh?” Ball caps like my grandfather used to wear, mesh backs and logos of junior hockey teams. “I’m sorry for your loss.” Trucking logos are also acceptable. So are denim coats, stiff corduroy collars. You: dress pants and an emerald green polyester shirt done to your Adam’s apple—silk tie balled up like an extra testicle in your left pocket.
People in the room have been waiting on this morning a long time—to the point that you feel like you’ve been waiting for it too. Such was the duration of Shannon’s illness. Such also is the endless story of Blairmore’s endurance—of mine accidents and mine closings, of forest fires and long sicknesses, of all-purpose fundamental misfortune. Your relatives look at the ground now, shake their heads and throw out stuff like, “it’s a hell of a thing.” And God damn, it is a hell of a thing. A fucking shitty thing, youwant to say, to prove how much you’ve been affected all these years. These good, kind, do-unto-other folks to whom unlucky things just keep happening. Next door, the other next door, and next door out each way from there are the same lived-in houses- enduring the same stretch of sad luck. Sad things happen to good people all over Canada, of course, but nowhere is the expectation so pronounced as the Pass.
When enough people have arrived, you file out into the drizzle, into pick-up trucks and mini vans. A whole mighty line of trucks and vans will form, one transporting the ashes along Highway 3 to the graveyard outside Sparwood. You have to pass other cars—cars already speeding—to keep up with your weaving convoy. And apparently there’s a short cut just before the BC border, so there’s no choice but to barrel after the line. Because what’s a funeral procession if it’s not making time?
Fog stretches over the Pass like an ashen tarpaulin, working its way outwards from Turtle Mountain. Or what’s left of it. One gentle spring morning in 1903, as the sun got ready to break, 82 million tonnes of limestone cracked off from the mountainside first, burying a sleeping town called Frank under three miles of rubble. It took about 90 seconds.
Tom will tell you a story about searchers who found a baby girl sitting peacefully atop a boulder the size of a Jeep Wagoneer, the rest of her family sealed with 70 others in the crypt beneath. Today, a wide-shouldered road and parallel rail line are the chunky limestone wasteland’s only let up. People who live beneath say the mountain “might” be about ready to crack again—although the geologists from the big city use the word “is.”
If your procession turned back east for ten minutes and ninety years, you’d be ground zero at Hillcrest. On June 19, 1914, around 9:30 in the morning, an undergound explosion ripped through the coal mine. Of the 235 men on shift, only 46 survived. Limbs randomly matched to the closest indistinguishable torsos at the mass burial after—one too many legs left over when they finished.
Anyway, you get the point: the Pass’ harsh history teems with this sadness. Driving though, you drift from one overgrown graveyard to another, shaking your head, basically just following the brunt of the surrounding mountains’ wrath.
Thus you arrive at the old Sparwood graveyard.
Tom, now in his late 40s, grew up beside the #3 between Blairmore and Sparwood in a town called Michel-Natal. The town—the whole town according to Tom—was “relocated to Sparwood thirty years ago.” The only evidence is a ramshackle hotel. “You shoulda seen this place when I was younger,” he shouts at me. “Coal dust! Trees, houses, clothes on the line, everything stained coal dust black.”
Tom spent his childhood in Michel-Natal with a boy named Todd. Todd’s 6’3″, almost 225 lbs in blue jeans, blue jean jacket and cowboy boots; George Carlin kind of face, long sharp grey pony tail. When you all arrive at the graveyard, Tom introduces Todd as his “longest oldest best friend in the whole wide world.” Every story Todd tells ends with a pal being mangled or killed—in a snowmobile accident or late at night on one of the back roads “pissed out of his gourd.” His voice trails off. “What a hell of a thing.” Todd’s been waiting for us at the graveyard, it would seem for hours. There are two shovels and a wheelbarrow full of dirt in the back of his pick-up.
Nobody placed an obituary in any of the papers. There were no invitations. No tactful “in lieu of” suggestions (“cancer” if anyone asked where they could send something). There wasn’t even any official starting time—only “Monday morning.” But there are more people here than anyone expected. Than you expected. They sort of all show up—even the ones not in your convoy—at the same time. And abruptly you begin.
Tom pulls the urn out of his Adidas bag, and stutters through a thanks for coming; looking down at the grave, he tells his sister how much he’ll miss her. A girl with carefully brushed bangs unfolds a piece of paper and reads the poem that she and her sister worked on the night before. Solid at first, she gets to the part about being happy that Grandma won’t be suffering anymore and her voice trembles. By the next line it falters. Then it cracks. After a minute, she shakes her head, unable to bring the steady composure back. A lady takes the sheet and continues, and once her voice collapses, an old man with a crew cut doggedly finishes it.
Next, three old ladies in animal patterned outfits shuffle hesitantly up to the front, drop a wreath in the open grave—a square ditch, three feet by three feet, about a third the size of a regular grave—and ask if they might say a few words. One of them, shaking, recites what you think is a psalm. Her friends hold her hands, and everyone nods their head with each word. Elmer—the old man who finished the little girl’s poem—says something you can’t hear. You’re at the back now. You do not belong near the front.
It goes on like this, haphazard. The one stipulation was that there be “nothing too obvious about God or Jesus.” Two families under a big fir tree self-consciously start into Amazing Grace. None of the boys tear, but they never remove their eyes from the ground, tilting back and forth until it’s done. No hearses. No organ. No funeral home directors with their tinted glasses and funeral director pallor. No priest. And then it’s done.
Tom thanks everyone again and says something about going to the Legion for a beer if anyone wants to come. He’ll buy the first round. Give him an hour.
A couple of the boys, yourself included, ask, “What can we do, Tom?”
“Just keep watch,” he says.
You rub your hands together briskly then blow into them for heat. The wheelbarrow comes out from the truck, then two shovels. Tom and Todd, best friends from a town you’re not convinced ever existed, stoically pour a mix of gravel and dirt over Todd’s little sister. There is something perfect about properly burying your own, as opposed to having some mortuary contract someone you don’t know—someone who digs a dozen graves a week. That’s a gig. This is closure, final and intimate. This is finishing something off without getting finished off yourself. Nobody dares offer to take a shovel.
It seems intrusive to stare so you look up into the sky at what you think is Crowsnest Mountain, named for the bloody battle between Crow and Blackfoot Indians. The Blackfoot trapped marauding Crow warriors and killed them in a “nest” at the base of the mountain. Mountains and reckoning; this is how you have always believed The Pass to work. Its cemeteries filled with miners and their families remind you of the consequences of picking too deeply into the earth. Those who live here have such an acute sense of penitence as to share an almost hedonistic understanding of how very appropriate death is. We don’t learn this growing up in the city. We simulate knowing. We have the Tragically Hip sing lines to us like:
“If I die of vanity, promise me, promise me,
They bury me someplace I don’t want to be,
You’ll dig me up and transport me, unceremoniously,
Away from the swollen city-breeze, garbage-bag trees,
Whispers of disease and the acts of enormity
And lower me slowly, sadly and properly.
Get Ry Cooder to sing my eulogy.”
The blend of mostly Eastern European cultures that originally settled the Pass have long since fortified into something of the area. Except for some of the ghost towns like Michel-Natal, which have actually vanished, their long-term history is scratched all over the mountains. You can viscerally feel the continuum from when the Pass was settled to when it was booming, right up until present day. There’s more a sense of a shared experience than where I live. A “we’re invested in this area together” kind of thing.
You start to wonder: why would the police care if a couple of local guys happen to be filling in some girl’s grave?
On the way to the Legion, Tom explains that due to space restrictions, the cemetery had been closed to new clients for more than twenty years. But her parents—his parents—are there, and her first husband and their first baby. It seemed to Tom that Shannon would want her ashes buried in the ground beside them. Besides, to put a body anywhere you need to buy some kind of a permit and pay some sort of administrative fee—which just isn’t an efficient use of capital. Middlemen didn’t do real well in Michel-Natal.
By the time you get into the Legion, Tom looks whipped. He’s got a cut on his face, his skin is splotchy and a vein on his forehead throbs. The council said they’d all be arrested if they tried this behind its back, but now she’s in and so’s the marker—and it’s barely noon. He pulls out a crisp $100 bill. And, you know what? Life’s not really that bad after all. You begin trading memories about your cousin Shannon. One fall, before you started going to school, your Grandfather took you all around these towns where he grew up. You camped in an old canvas tent, visited the rowdy chain smokers, played cribbage until late at night and pretended to look for some cursed mine that killed everybody who got near it. Everybody at your table remembers your grandfather. No matter how hard you think, you can’t remember meeting their sister—even though Tom insists on giving you the benefit of the doubt.
Speeding back home through the eastern end of the Pass, back to Calgary, the welcome tree becomes the exit tree. It’s the most photographed tree in Canada, this limber pine that is between 400 and 750 years old. It is the Crowsnest Pass—a strange weathered life enduring so stubbornly we cannot bring ourselves to bury it. Want to know a secret about the Burmis Tree? Steel brackets are fastened over its dried up roots to keep it from blowing away.
It’s been dead since 1979.
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