Searching for an Inuit Afterlife: Nursing Homes Come to the Arctic, and a Way of Death Changes

By: Justin Nobel | Date: Mon, May 4th, 2015

The Canadian Arctic is changing swiftly, including ways of death. Inuit once abandoned elders to die on ice floes, now elder homes are popping up across the territory of Nunavut. (Photos by Justin Nobel)

Seven miles. That’s how far downstream the Mississippi River carried my grandfather when he swam across at Baton Rouge. The year must have been about 1933, the heart of the Great Depression. Born Joseph Knobel in Lódź, Poland, 1913, or perhaps 1914, his father Jacob went to America in search of work and sent back four tickets, but an older brother and a twin had died of malnutrition. Joe arrived with his mother, and at Ellis Island was nearly denied entry because of rickets. The family settled in Patterson, New Jersey, where Jacob ran a small factory that made silk cloth, then the Depression struck. Joe graduated high school and hitchhiked to New Orleans, looking to work as a cabin boy on an ocean-bound steamer, but there was no work. He tramped to Baton Rouge, set up camp in an old stadium, tramped to Mexico, swam the Mississippi, enrolled at Louisiana State University, fell in love with Francis Seligman, got a degree in chemistry, worked at a sugar plant deep in the bayou, married Fran. They reared six boys, traveled the world with a green knapsack, sent postcards to their 18 grandchildren. I was number twelve and kept the postcards in a shoebox, and on a globe in my room looked up names of the cities in India, China, Burma, Peru. The globe had a certain feel, hard and glossy, like an eggshell, with the great mountain ranges of the world raised and rippled and colored in white. And I too had a certain feel, an itch, a desire, perhaps the same thing that made Joseph Knobel of Lódź hit the road after high school. I wanted to go places that looked nothing like the places I was from, wanted to see grand vistas, wanted to touch the core of the world, wanted to disappear.

It was at about that time that my grandparents were being transferred by their sons from their rustic home in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey to a fancy nursing home in the suburbs of New York City. This man of the wild, this man of the wander, this man of the old country and the old way, who had nearly perished because he was so poor and sick, but who when he had the chance had thrived, perhaps because he once had been so poor and sick, was now being put somewhere safe, in the suburbs, just several miles from where I had grown up, and now I was the one wandering, hatching my own journey. It was a transfer of power, an energy shift.

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Joe’s shanty stands on a seaweed-striped beach, between the deflated carcass of a ringed seal and a snowmobile graveyard. He is an Inuit bum and on the cold drizzly August day I visited, a toasty fire blazed in an oil drum furnace and a single window with an orange pane bathed the room in light the color of peach sorbet. In a pan on the floor were the leftovers of lunch, a pink fish head, and a pile of golden brown biscuits. Joe’s girl, Elena, who was more than 30 years his junior and freshly released from prison lay with another woman on a bed, playing double solitaire. She was plump, with sheeny black hair cropped like a Lego Man and had chipmunk cheeks, which she blamed on prison food. “They fed us, fed us, fed us, fed us,” said Elena, “we didn’t have anything to do but eat.” Joe sat on a rickety chair, tending the fire. He wore combat boots, filthy blue jeans, a wristwatch, and was missing two front teeth. “Eat it,” said Joe, offering me one of the biscuits, a pan-fried bread called bannock. “You’ll be sexually aroused.”

Baffin Island, the fifth largest one on earth is shaped like a gargantuan caribou leg, partially cloaked in glaciers, mostly covered in the tundra, and has several long bays that jab into the island’s mountainous middle. Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut, Canada’s vast Inuit territory, lies at the end of Frobisher Bay. Despite a population of just 7,000 people, it feels like a city. There are slums, suburbs, gangs, artists, bureaucrats, hardworking young migrants from the Arctic countryside, and bums, like Joe. Long after most other homeless left the beach, Joe remained, catching meals outside his shanty with fishnets set in the bay for char and begging about town for change to buy kerosene and cigarettes. He was a nag and a bore, in the way bums can be, but he did have fans. When his shanty burnt to the ground, the townspeople helped him rebuild.

It may be they felt sorry for Joe, he had had a tough go of it. Born underweight and sickly, his parents had apparently left him for dead but a great grandmother took him in, feeding him from her own mouth, like a bird. He did jail time down in Ontario and once, in Iqaluit, got the shit kicked out of him for going after another guy’s girl—“I was dead for three-quarters of an hour,” he told me. Or, perhaps people secretly admired him for bucking the system. While most other Inuit in Iqaluit lived in near-identical brightly painted government homes, with microwaves and flat-screen TVs, Joe was living more like the Inuit always had, in a simple structure, out on the land. He could probably get a spot in the men’s shelter or the nursing home, just up the beach from his shanty but valued his independence too much.

“There are a lot of ifs living here,” Joe said, his gruff face looking orange in the room’s surreal light, “but I‘d rather be on my own.” He nodded in the direction of the nursing home. “It’s a good idea for people who can hardly walk or hardly do anything, but people like me who can go after women,” and he groped Elena, whose puffy cheeks crinkled into a smile, “I don’t want to be in that category. I see old folks, crouching, hurting to walk, shuffling through the years, I want someone to take me out before I go into that kind of situation.”

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There is not much material out there on how different cultures once killed their elderly, a practice called senicide, but there is some. In rural Japan, upon reaching age 70, sons carried their mothers and fathers up a holy peak called Obasute-Yama, or Granny-dump Mountain, and left them on top to die of exposure and starvation. The Bactrians, who inhabited present-day northern Afghanistan threw the old and sick to specially trained dogs, called undertakers—streets were littered with human bones. In North Africa, Troglodyte elders who were no longer able to tend their flocks asphyxiated themselves by fastening the tail of an ox around their necks. East of the Caspian Sea, the Derbiccae murdered males at age 70 and ate them; women were merely strangled and buried. Among the Massagetae, who lived around the Aral Sea, relatives sacrificed old men and stewed them together with wild beasts, while the Iazyges of Sarmatia, who roamed lands north of the Black Sea were slain by their children with swords.

Closer to home, on the rocky Diomede Islands, in the storm-thrashed Bering Strait between Siberia and Alaska, the Iñupiat ritualistically murdered elders with knives and nooses. Those who wanted to die would tell their intentions to a relative, who would try and dissuade them. If minds could not be changed the killing went forth. The person to be killed turned their clothing inside out and relatives carried them on a seat of caribou skin to the destroying place, on the edge of the village. The one who did the killing was called the executioner, usually the victim’s eldest son. One story, reported in a 1955 article in the Southwestern Journal of Anthropology tells of a 12-year-old boy who killed his father with a large hunting knife: “He indicated the vulnerable spot over his heart, where his son should stab him. The boy plunged the knife deep, but the stroke failed to take effect. The old father suggested with dignity and resignation, ‘Try it a little higher, my son.’ The second stab was effective.”

From the Canadian Arctic comes the story of Charles Francis Hall, a Cincinnati newspaper publisher who in 1860 abandoned his wife and children to explore the frozen north. On southern Baffin Island, not far from present-day Iqaluit, he visited the igloo of a dying old woman named Nukertou, only to find the community had barricaded her home with bricks of snow. Thinking it unchristian to let her die alone, Hall forced his way in. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven did I slowly count in the intervals of her breathing,” he wrote in his journal. “At last I could count nineteen between her inspirations but her respirations were short and prolonged—irregular. At length, Nukertou ceased to live.” About 60 years later, the explorer anthropologist Knud Rasmussen reported senicide among the Netsilik Inuit of King William’s Land. “For our custom up here,” he noted, “is that all old people who can do no more, and whom death will not take, help death to take them.” During long winter marches between hunting grounds elders were reportedly left behind on ice floes to die. A decade later, the French adventurer Gontran de Poncins lived among the Netsilik and described a son who had abandoned his mother in a blizzard, one of the last known accounts of senicide.

De Poncins marked the end of an era. Anthropology buttoned-up, became a profession, with guidelines and degrees. Some questions were deemed relevant, others ridiculed. Modern anthropologists are more concerned about how things like Christianity and television and climate change are affecting the Inuit. Rather than being locked in igloos Inuit elders are now confined to nursing homes, which are popping up across the territory. No one thinks much about senicide, and if they think anything they think it is a lie. “Over the last three centuries, White explorers and adventurers, police officers, missionaries, traders, and especially anthropologists, sociologists, and other scholars have spun many a twisted story about the Inuit,” wrote Canadian anthropologist John Steckley, in his 2008 book, White Lies About the Inuit. But, several years back, when I dialed Steckley by phone at Humber College, in Toronto, I was surprised to learn that he had written his entire book from the university library. The man had never been to the Arctic.

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I followed Joe into the drizzle to check his nets, four silver flapping Arctic char. Back at the shanty, an 82-year-old woman named Enoapik in a sealskin dress and floral boots was waiting to purchase fish. With several in hand, she walked to the qammaq, a sort of senior center beside the nursing home where sprightly old folks came to eat and play games. Inside was a bright carpeted room with big picture windows, when I entered a giggly group of gray-haired ladies was on the floor, hacking apart a frozen caribou with hatchets and butcher knives and drinking Crush. Squatting over a massive wishbone was a stout woman named Napatchie, director of the qammaq and Enoapik’s daughter. She pushed with all her might and the bone snapped, making a gigantic sound, like a tree cracking in a wind storm, then dipped a piece of meat in a viscous green liquid. “It’s the aged blubber of a whale,” said Napatchie, smiling. “It’s like a cheese.”

Napatchie told me she could translate for Enoapik, and the three of us went into a back room. Enoapik happily rambled a few lines when I asked about her childhood, but when I asked about Inuit senicide her grin swiftly transformed into a frown.

“She is not going to talk about that,” snapped Napatchie.

To patch things up, a few days later I bought the elders a tub of Neapolitan ice cream. They devoured it cheerfully from plastic bowls, Enoapik gave me a reassuring grin. The ladies were headed to an elders’ gathering in the community of Cape Dorset, located on a small mysterious crime-ridden island in the Hudson Strait that was almost continuously locked in fog, and they invited me to join.

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Once airborne I snacked on Oreos and ginger ale as our turboprop plane hummed west across Baffin Island, a treeless brown land fractured by gleaming blue streams. Taking off in Iqaluit, skies were clear but sure enough, as we approached the Hudson Strait a bright wall of fog swallowed our plane and we disappeared into a world of white. This meteorological shield had prevented aircraft from landing in Dorset for seven days, though somehow our pilot found a hole and down we went, skidding to a stop on a gravel runway. Outside, eerie dark hills surrounded the town, crude piles of rock, as if a primordial god had flung down gobs of land then stopped time, petrifying the landscape in its original buckles and cleaves. In the tiny airport waiting room was a crush of people, clamoring for essentials like milk, bread, and booze, which had run dry in the fog. Royal Canadian Mounted Police monitored the teetering crowd, in tight beige uniforms with guns strapped to their hips.

“There’s a lot of drugs and alcohol here, a lot of domestic abuse, a lot of family violence, a lot of suicide, a lot of murder,” said a brawny harmonica singer from southern Canada who picked me up at the airport in an Isuzu Trooper. We descended a muddy hill and drove through the center of town, passing a community center, a nursing station, and Northmart, a monstrous chain store that sold everything from tomatoes to snowmobiles. Like all buildings, it was on stilts, because of the permafrost. On a handicapped ramp that led to it loitered Inuit teens, in dark hoodies and baggy jeans, with hats cocked sideways.

Just one year before, a teenager named Peter Kingwatsiak had stabbed his sleeping uncle in the head then shot and killed his slumbering stepbrother. Shortly after that, a 19-year-old named Elee shot a dog then a raven then his brother Jamesie, in what was reportedly a fight over an iPod. Three days afterward, two 15-year-old boys roamed the town with rifles, firing at will, an escapade that ended in a police standoff in which one boy was shot in the torso. We passed gray and brown modular homes and the Sam Pudlat Elementary School, where events for the elders’ gathering were to be held. Beyond were the dark rock hills, whose tops had already been re-consumed by fog, terminating the weather window.

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To communicate with elders, most of whom only spoke Inuktitut I needed a translator and my first night in Dorset the mayor introduced me to just the man, Black. We chatted outside the Sam Pudlat Elementary School, as children swung on swings in the long-lasting sunset. Black wore a black hoody, black sweatpants, black boots without laces, and had black hair that was going white and a wispy goatee that had already gone. He spoke perfect English and was sarcastic in a way one seldom sees among the Inuit, fond of phrases like, “Holy Eskimo!” A sloppy tattoo on his left arm of a knife stabbing a rose suggested he had been to prison. I liked him immediately.

Black’s real name was Pootoogook, which means big toe and is a very popular Inuit name. Of 14 kids in his elementary school class, five were named Pootoogook. One student started calling him Black and it stuck. Black now worked as a translator when journalists and scientists came to town. He also worked as a sort of parole officer for the police, coordinating releases when Inuit got tossed in the drunk tank. But with no planes for a week there had been no booze and the drunk tank was empty. “This is perfect for me,” said Black, lighting a cigarette. “I’ve got no work right now.”

I explained I was looking to speak with elders who knew stories of senicide. Black said he had someone in mind and asked for an advance. I gave him 60 bucks, which he quickly passed to a mousey wife who scurried off to the grocery store. I mentioned taking a walk that evening to the dark hills outside town but Black said not to, there was a polar bear on the loose. He relayed a story I was to hear several times. A hunter camped outside town was recently dragged by his head from a tent in the night. The man broke free from the bear but couldn’t see a thing; his scalp had been ripped away and was dangling in front of his eyes.

That night everyone got blind drunk and the town exploded on cue. No one was dead but a lot of fights had broken out, including one with Black’s son, and the jail was packed. For the moment, my translator was preoccupied.

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On opening day of the elder’s gathering, I sat with the old ladies from Iqaluit and watched a pot-bellied Inuit with a guitar named Nowdlak Oshuituk play folk songs introduced by Scottish whalers. “He’s a self-taught musician from Cape Dorset,” whispered Napatchie, chaperone of the Iqaluit ladies. “His name means, Man without a penis.” Enoapik got up to dance and motioned me to join. I’m a terrible dancer but with Inuit eyes from across the territory centered on me, turning down one of the gathering’s VIPs seemed foolish. We did a sort of jitterbug. Then came, “the world’s smallest clothes competition.”

Five elderly women paraded across the gym floor in ridiculous outfits. One wore Spiderman tights, a too-small Spiderman top, and a child’s Spiderman cap. Another had on jean capris and a lacy top, not necessarily that small, though her sunglasses still made her something to look at: tiny, vintage, dusted in glitter. The clear winner in my opinion, though I don’t think one was ever declared, was an obese woman in sweatpants and a tube top. As contestants posed for pictures, one of her breasts slipped out of the tube top. With the whole gym in hysterics, the ladies retired to the locker room and a big bucket of cookies was passed around.

One evening, as elders posed for photos in traditional tops called amautis, white bead-studded jackets with capacious hoods for carrying toddlers, I slipped out the back door of the gymnasium, seeking a different world. A trio of youths was climbing about a shipping container, smoking cigarettes and looking bored. I introduced myself.

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There was Numa, 13, a chatterer with a backward New York cap and braces; Willie, 14, in black jeans with acne on his forehead and leader of the little pack and Tiggy, who was only 10 and looked like a lost pup, with untied shoelaces, patched jeans, and an over-sized green hoody. He carried a slingshot made from a scrap of rubber and was continuously picking up stones and shooting them off into the tundra. I suggested we walk to the dark hills outside town. They said okay, there was a waterfall there they wanted to show me. I asked if we need to worry about the polar bear, they said no.

The sun lowered and the kids fired questions at me.

“Do you wanna go party?” asked Willie.

“You like Katy Perry?” asked Numa.

“Is your father still alive?” asked Willie.

“You should live here,” said Numa.

All the while Tiggy was gathering rocks and slingshotting them off. He seemed malnourished.

“Guess what?” said Willie, pointing at Tiggy. “His mom smokes weed with him.”

“He’s kinda poor,” said Numa.

“Look!” Tiggy suddenly shouted, pointing into the sky. A delicate line fluttered against the blue, barely visible, like sewing thread billowing in the stratosphere. It was a skein of snow geese.

“Koola Kook!” Willie called to the birds, cupping his hands to his mouth. “Koola Kook! Koola Kook! Koola Kook!”

We circled a still lake on a road sticky with orange mud. The further we got from town the more the kids spilled.

“The last couple days lots of people were drunken,” said Willie.

“I live with my grandmother because my mother doesn’t like me,” said Numa. “Some of the people hurt little kids. They get angry, and…I don’t know.”

“You know a lot of people who commit suicide?” asked Willie. I knew some, I said, but not a lot.

“I knew another Willie,” said Willie. “He committed suicide.”

Willie pointed to one of the dark hills, which we were now approaching. “You see that mountain,” he said. “Some girl saw the devil there, with a tail.”

“There are ghosts there,” added Numa. “They’re dark, black and small, kinda like smoke.”

The waterfall was a lathery current pressed flat against slick rocks, like a giant’s unfurled tongue. Tiggy shot up its sheer face as if it were a ladder. I was sure he’d fall but quickly he was on top. He didn’t raise his arms above his head in victory as kids sometimes do but dashed off. Back behind us was the town and the sun setting fiery red above it, and in the other direction was the sea, dusky blue with a thin strip of gray between it and the sky, which was pink and branded by a white sphere; the moon, three-quarters full and rising. It was hard to believe I was still in the same universe as the elders. The gathering had made them doe-eyed and merry, like children. Meanwhile, the children were the ones who had now been abandoned.

Suddenly, Tiggy reappeared. His green hoody was striped with wet marks. It was just water but looked like he had taken part in a strange ritual as if he really had become a tiggy.

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One afternoon Black called to say the man he had in mind was ready to talk, a brawny 72-year-old with neatly combed silver hair named Atsiaq Alasuaq. We spoke at Black’s place, a small yellow house in the Valley, a neighborhood of trailer-like homes bordered by a gravel pit, a metal dump—where the polar bear had last been seen—and a cemetery of cockeyed white wooden crosses. Atsiaq sat in a swivel chair by a window that looked out upon the cemetery. Behind it rose a steep ridge, an ancient polar bear pathway, said Black.

Atsiaq had grown up in a hunting camp, where he lived in a sort of igloo condominium. Three igloos, each belonging to different families were connected by snow passageways. To minimize heat loss there was only one door to the outside. A system of knocks let families communicate between igloos. There were knocks for mealtime, knocks for heading out hunting, and knocks for just passing through. Atsiaq’s camp was near a spot where walrus liked to haul up. I asked him if he ever hunted them. “Of course I’ve hunted walrus!” he said. “When I was a kid I was the one who harpooned the walrus because I was the strongest.” They killed the 2,000-pound beasts as they napped on the sea ice.

Still, famine was common. “Families that went hungry would have to eat their dogs,” said Atsiaq. “I’ve also heard of actual cannibalism, but that was way before I was born.” He swiveled his chair to face the window and began pointing. I thought he was indicating the graves but he was actually referring to the ankle-high Arctic plants. When he was younger they would mix the roots with seal fat to stave off hunger. “Nowadays,” lamented Atsiaq, “no one eats the roots.”

He confirmed the elderly had indeed been left to die on ice floes, but the practice stopped about a decade before he was born. When he was younger, after someone died their body was surrounded by a ring of rocks—“so the bones, when they disintegrated, wouldn’t blow away.” A person’s favorite tool was put outside the ring. If someone died alone on the land they placed their tool outside the ring themselves then crawled inside to die. I asked Atsiaq what his tool would be. “My knife,” he replied immediately. “It is made of ivory with a wood handle, and mainly used to hunt walrus.”

Atsiaq left and there was a commotion outside. Kids were shouting and I could see people running. The polar bear! Black and I rushed into the street. A crowd had gathered around a neighbor’s house. One boy pointed to a marble-sized black lump on the wall.

“Holy Eskimo!” cried Black. “We never see those in the north.”

It was a fly.


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My flight back to Iqaluit was delayed for two days because of fog, then delayed again because of a deadly plane crash in the Central Arctic then delayed another five days because of fog. On the evening I finally left Cape Dorset my turboprop plane climbed quickly into a lavender sky. By the time I looked back the community was a button of light in a welt of black, and then there was only black. A stewardess passed around drinks. Back in Iqaluit, curious about the nursing home the bum Joe so aggressively avoided, I arranged to meet with a woman named Mary Akpalialuk.

She picked me up one afternoon in her red Ford F-150. Mary was beefy and wore a leather jacket and dark shades. We parked in the gravel lot of the Nakasuk Elementary School, a white windowless hexagon, like a great prong-less snowflake. Across the street was a donut shop where drug dealers gathered and besides that was the nursing home, the oldest in the territory, and where nine years ago Mary had deposited her parents. “I thought this place was good for them,” she said, nodding at the home.

Her parents had been living happily in Pangnirtung, a Baffin Island community framed by towering U-shaped mountains when Mary’s father had a stroke. He was medevacked to Ottawa and returned in a wheelchair, the left side of his body paralyzed. Then, Mary’s mother broke her hip. Her parents needed full-time care but her siblings had jobs and so did Mary. With pangs of regret, she did what any good daughter would have done, and set them up in a nursing home. But the elders were neglected, said Mary. They were fed pork instead of walrus, and requests for a special mobile bed a physiotherapist had recommended for her father went ignored. “He did some bowel movements and no one cleaned him,” said Mary. “He would start itching and the mess would be around his fingers and face. It was horrible.”

Mary’s parents were now dead and she had new worries, raising a teenage daughter, making her mortgage, and a demanding government job. Sometimes she drank. Mary started driving, she wanted to show me Iqaluit. We passed a bustling post office, a string of trapezoidal government buildings, and a pair of banks. Litter-lined streams ran through town to the beach, where Joe continued to live, though several nearby sheds used by hunters to store supplies had recently been demolished by bulldozers, part of a city-wide beautification project led by a bright progressive new female mayor. “I remember growing up,” said Mary, “if a family didn’t have sugar or tea or bannock, we’d give it to them. Today we don’t see that anymore. Today life sucks because there’s no respect.”

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A few days later I visited the nursing home with a translator and met one of the tenants, an 83-year-old woman in a wheelchair named Udloriaq Ineak. She was a shrunken toothless thing, in fuzzy magenta slippers and teal sweatpants, with watery blue eyes and arms bruised and swollen from diabetes. Jars of jam decorated her nightstand and completed puzzles decorated her walls; a parrot, dogs of the world, and Christie Brinkley sitting on her haunches in a field of flowers.

Udloriaq was born in the Baffin Island community of Kimmirut but at age four moved to a hunting camp outside town, living more like the Inuit always had. At 14 she married, not for love or because her family wanted a dowry but for food. “I used to go hungry,” she said. “After I got married, I never went hungry.” Her husband hunted by dogsled. One day, while he was gone a polar bear, came by the tent. She had two young girls at the time and although she had a gun, she didn’t try and shoot the bear, she just watched it. “I had no fear,” said Udloriaq. She had been through too much. In the early 1950s, famine and disease struck and Udloriaq was one of the few people who remained healthy. She became a nurse to the entire community, helping the dying die with dignity, helping the almost dead back to life. These days, she relished the easy-going life of the home. There was a washroom, a laundry room, a kitchen, and nurses on call 24 hours a day.

“Are you afraid to die?” I asked Udloriaq.

“I’m not afraid of death at all,” she said. “I believe once a soul passes away it goes to heaven, and those who are not believers go to that other place.”

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Unlike explorers such as Hall, who wrote about the north as outsiders, Knud Rasmussen was born in Ilulissat, Greenland. He grew up with the Inuit, spoke perfect Inuktitut and by age eight was running his own dog team. In 1921, he embarked on a 20,000-mile journey across the Arctic, from Baffin Island to Siberia, observing the Inuit just before contact with fur traders and missionaries changed them forever. He recorded senicide among the Netsilik Inuit of King William’s Land and was one of the few explorers who succeeded in communicating with shamans, hermetic, mercurial men who spoke only Inuktitut. During a blizzard in a swampy section of the Central Arctic called the Barren Grounds, Rasmussen took refuge in the igloo of a shaman named Aua. After a meal of raw walrus, talk turned to the netherworld.

Those who die slowly, like from a withering sickness go to a purgatory called the Narrow Land, located at the bottom of the ocean, explained Aua. Those who die quick violent deaths go to the Land of Day, located in the sky. It was, “a land of glad and happy souls,” Rasmussen recorded in his journal, “with many caribou, and the people there live only for pleasure. They play ball most of the time…with the skull of a walrus, and laughing and singing as they play.” It’s possible to get from the Narrow Land to the Land of Day, but first, you must confess your sins to a sea goddess named Takanaluk Arnaluk who was flung from a boat by her father in a storm to lighten the load—Takanaluk clung to the side but her father chopped off her fingers.

“I wonder about it too,” said Laval University anthropologist Frederic Laugrand, co-author of the 2010 book, Inuit Shamanism and Christianity: Transitions and Transformations in the Twentieth Century, when I asked him by phone why Inuit who died quick violent deaths were rewarded. He believed it had to do with the body’s desire to free its soul. A slow death held up a soul on its way to the afterlife, whereas a violent death let the soul leave the body swiftly and go straight to heaven. Laugrand thought Inuit senicide made sense within this context and didn’t see a problem believing the elderly were once left to die on ice floes. In fact, he imagined that for those Inuit who actually lived to be old, it was common practice.

“There was no scandal of death, that is a Western idea,” said Laugrand. “For an Inuit elder, there came a moment when he or she would think life was too much, and that it is better to fall from the sledge and freeze to death.”

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Once every month or two, I buy a loaf of uncut sourdough bread and a cranberry muffin and take the train from Grand Central Station north, getting off in Harrison. I walk half a mile through leafy suburbs to a majestic neo-Georgian estate called The Osborn. I give the muffin to the nurse and the bread to my grandmother, whose eyes tear with joy, then head over to the couch where my grandfather seems to be forever resting, flat on his back. He isn’t so much dying as disintegrating, hurtling through space like a meteorite, with flecks and pieces flying off, his hearing, his back, his vision. But the body is not dead until the core is dead, and so onward he hurtles.

“Joey,” my grandmother calls from the kitchen, “your grandson Justin has brought you some bread.”

Born Joseph Knobel in Lódź, Poland, 1913, or perhaps 1914, his father Jacob went to America in search of work and sent back four tickets. The family settled in Patterson, the Depression hit, Joe graduated high school, hitchhiked to New Orleans, tramped to Baton Rouge, tramped to Mexico, swam the Mississippi, enrolled at Louisiana State University, fell in love with Francis Seligman, got a degree in chemistry, worked at a sugar plant, married Fran, raised six boys, traveled the world with a green knapsack, sent postcards to 18 grandchildren, hundreds of postcards, thousands of miles, millions of breaths, heartbeats, seconds, time, lives burning away under azure skies, foreign skies, broiling away, boiling away, living away, familiar skies. No answer to the answerless question that is the thing called our lives.

I am holding his hand on the couch, and I continue holding his hand on the couch, and he grips my arm, and whispers,

“Thank you for coming.”

Pappa Joe Sunshine on Face in Garden June 2008

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