Eklutna Cemetery Spirit Houses in Eklutna, Alaska

You know I love finding unusual places on my travels, and our destination today is indeed interesting. In Eklutna, a remote town in Alaska surrounded by pristine wilderness, is the remarkable Eklutna Cemetery.

In this unique burial ground outside the Saint Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, we encountered colorful structures called spirit houses marking the graves instead of headstones. I learned that these structures blend Dena’ina Athabascan practices and Russian Orthodox tradition.

In this post, we’ll uncover the history and cultural significance of these spirit houses, gaining insights into the Dena’ina Athabascan customs regarding life, death, and the afterlife. I’ll also share some information about Eklutna and how to get there if you want to see this amazing little corner of Alaska for yourself.


Colorful spirit houses at Eklutna Cemetery near Anchorage, Alaska

About Eklutna, Alaska and the Cemetery

Eklutna is a small and remote Alaska native village situated in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough in south-central Alaska, about 25 minutes northeast of Anchorage. Despite being so close to Alaska’s largest city, Eklutna is a small community with a modest population of about 70 residents.

The town holds significant historical and cultural importance for the Dena’ina Athabascan people, who have inhabited the region for generations. Archaeological evidence suggests they settled there over 800 years ago. Then the first non-Native settlers – Russian Orthodox missionaries – arrived in about 1840, when Alaska was a part of imperial Russia. 

The Eklutna Historical Park, where the church and cemetery lay, depicts and preserves the blending of these two very different cultures.

​​​​​​​HOW TO GET THERE: Getting to Eklutna from Anchorage is incredibly easy. The most convenient method is renting a car at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport or downtown Anchorage. This will allow you the flexibility to travel at your own pace and explore the surrounding area. More below on things to do in Eklutna and the surrounding area beyond the cemetery. 

​​​​​​​INFO FOR YOUR VISIT: The Eklutna Cemetery is open to visitors from mid-May through mid-September. Adult admission is $5, and guided tours are available Monday through Friday, 10 am–5 pm.

Eklutna Cemetery Spirit Houses

The Eklutna spirit houses hold deep cultural significance for the Dena’ina Athabascan people, reflecting their beliefs surrounding death and the afterlife. When a family member passes, blankets are placed over the graves, serving the practical purpose of comforting the departed as they transition to the spiritual realm.

Around forty days later, families return to perform another ritual, placing a spirit box over the site and leaving parting gifts. The spirit box symbolizes shelter for the departed soul in the afterlife, while gifts express love and respect. The spirit houses are then left to weather and decay, embodying the Athabascan belief in reciprocity with nature.

These profound customs link the past with the present, reflecting the cultural identity of the Dena’ina Athabascan people and their deep connection to humanity, nature, and the spiritual realm. The Eklutna Cemetery’s spirit houses are a testament to this enduring legacy.

alaskan moose lying on plants near green trees during daytime
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Things To Do in Eklutna, Alaska

Summer in Eklutna is a wonderful time to explore, appreciate nature, and learn about the region’s rich cultural heritage. There are several things to do in and around Eklutna to fill out a whole day.

  • At the cemetery, take time to view the classic Russian Orthodox domes atop the church and the traditional three-barred Russian Orthodox crosses. 
  • Go swimming, fishing, kayaking, or paddleboarding at picturesque Eklutna Lake – a stunning glacial lake surrounded by mountains. 
  • See if you can (safely) spot local wildlife like birds, moose, or bears. 
  • Bust out that DSLR camera and take some epic photos. Eklutna and the surrounding area are a nature photographer’s dream destination. 
  • Hike to Thunderbird Falls and explore Chugach State Park.
  • Explore the mountain biking trails and enjoy the thrill of cycling through beautiful landscapes.
  • Participate in cultural tours to gain insights into the traditions, history, and stories of the indigenous Dena’ina Athabascan people.
  • Camp in designated areas and experience the tranquility of the Alaskan wilderness under the summer sky.

Visiting Eklutna is a worthy addition to a trip to Anchorage. Please consider adding it to your Alaska itinerary!

Each “Where in the World …” post depicts a spectacular or unusual sight from random corners of the earth. Learn a little something new about the world and get inspired! For more Global Debauchery photography, follow me on Instagram. I’d love to collaborate if you have any photos, experiences, or ideas for future “Where in the World …” posts. Just shoot me an email via the Contact page in the main menu.

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