- Associated Press - Friday, May 20, 2016

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) - Months after a school secretary in the western Alaska village of Hooper Bay lost her son to an accidental death, she says she finally has some closure thanks to a group of students who helped dig his grave.

Maria Oaks held a funeral service in Hooper Bay after her 39-year-old son, Richard, died in Anchorage in January. But his body rested in a casket above ground until recently, while the permafrost began to thaw, KTUU-TV reported (https://bit.ly/1Rcbw1X).

“At the time the ground was pretty frozen for us to bury him … but we placed him over at the cemetery,” Oaks said.

As Hooper Bay School students neared the end of the school year in late May, it marked the start of the school’s annual Cultural Week, an effort by students to help elders in the community.

Hooper Bay School lead faculty member Daniel Cernak said some activities included sewing traditional crafts or netting whitefish to donate to neighbors. But a group of about a dozen students chose to help Oaks bury her son.

“We said ‘Yeah we’d love to do that’ so I walked around and got a bunch of the high school boys and loaded them up in the school truck,” Cernak said.

The students went to the grave site and worked for hours shoveling as far into the ground as they could. When they reached a layer of permafrost, a community water and sewer company sent a backhoe to do the rest. Some students had even stayed past the end of the school day to complete the job.

Cernak said it was a powerful moment watching the students put forth that kind of effort as well as a reflection of the school’s role in the broader community.

Oaks said it’s a relief knowing her son has finally been laid to rest.

“From the time we brought him over to the cemetery, I had never rested well, never slept well,” Oaks said. “After they buried him, I have been sleeping better.”


Information from: KTUU-TV, https://www.ktuu.com

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