Bury the dead. The words may seem over-simplified in the pragmatic rush of everyday life, but not for those Alaskans who have taken on the task of honoring them as prescribed within the corporal works of mercy.
For Dan Belanger, burying the faithful departed and looking ahead to what awaits them in the hereafter comes as an inheritance — an duty he admits befell him with the passing of his father, but not without a bit of preparation. In the context of the battlefield, Dan knows death all too well, but deeper down, he forges ahead in a legacy that honors death as the gateway to eternity.
“I’m a Dessert Storm veteran,” he noted as he stood in Wasilla’s Sacred Heart Cemetery on a balmy day in early March. “And I saw what death does, in a wartime situation. You always know that you’re going to die, but the nightmares you have … My dad bringing me on (to this ministry) has actually given me a chance to use this as a therapy, to grasp the idea of death and the future life that God has for us.”
For Dan, the baton was passed more than a year ago, on Good Friday, when his dad, Dave Belanger, died from cancer. Dave’s numerous contributions to the parish at Sacred Heart, in Wasilla included woodworking and other handicrafts, and he and Dan handcrafted an ornate, portable tabernacle. But Dave’s works in the organization and maintenance of the Sacred Heart Cemetery on Edlund Road may have won the most renown among parishioners who came to know him as the man who devoted his life and passion to serving others beyond the ends of their lives.
“We all come here in the end,” Dan said, with a sweep of his hand toward a row of tombstones and the expanses of the valley beyond. “But if someone would have asked me if I ever thought of it as a calling, I’d have said, “‘No.’”
In 1999, Dan’s parents, Dave and Priscilla, had been commissioned by the late Archbishop Francis Hurley to manage Catholic cemeteries for the archdiocese after Bill and Irene Yaskolski willed the 60-acre plot that would become Sacred Heart Cemetery. The cemetery overlooks the Palmer Hayflats with Pioneer Peak defining the Chugach Mountains in the distance. Bill Yaskolski is buried there. As the story goes, he liked the view.
And for the late Dave Belanger? That view became his mission.
“He loved this ministry,” Dan said of his father, “not because it was one that people didn’t want to do but that it was one of the most important ministries that people didn’t do — just something that was missed and needed to be done.”
From the beginning Dave and Priscilla landscaped the layout, arranged for digging each of the graves, placed all of the headstones, maintained the grounds and made it a signature of Christ’s promise of the eternal kingdom. In the years to follow, Dan and his wife, Jenny segued into the ministry with their parents. These days, they continue to serve with Priscilla as Eucharistic ministers, grounds maintenance workers at Sacred Heart and rack up countless hours volunteering as team leaders in men’s and women’s spiritual retreats.
Though the Belangers keep their calendars scribbled to their margins with other Catholic commitments, they are dedicated to carry on Dave’s commitment.
“Obviously, we have big shoes to fill,” Jenny said of her father-in-law. “We have a lot to learn. But it’s just such a blessing to come here, and pay it forward.”
Future plans call for expanding the cemetery, adding a prayer path and putting in a well to supply water for the lawn and the flowers. Meanwhile, the Belangers have found, as many who embark into faith-driven works, that the cemetery offers an avenue for creativity, not only in terms of beautifying the grounds that house the deceased but also in consoling the people who remain behind.
On a March evening at the cemetery the setting sun threw orange hues upon a large wooden cross with spikes jutting from its extremities, The empty cross might seem to contradict Catholic tradition in its absence of the Body of Christ. However, a stone Bible resides at its foot with the inscription: “He has risen; he is not here.”
Beyond that, an eight-foot-tall monolithic stone anchors the plot and its graves against the background of a pastel sky and mountains that will shed snow from their alpine meadows in the months to come. The stone’s sharp angles suggest the roughing out of a sculpture of sorts: Christ carrying the cross on his back.
“Some people look at it and see that there is a lot of strength in it, or there’s some purity— or they put simplicity into it,” Dan said.
“You can get several things out of it,” Priscilla added.
And as the sun slipped into the western horizon, it was apparent that the Belangers find more than several blessings in caring for the dead.
“I don’t know how many times we come here to do maintenance and a family is here, and they just find a sense of peace,” Jenny recalled. “It’s just beautiful. It’s serene.”
“They come here and find that peace,” Dan agreed. “They devote time to their loved ones, or spend time to pray, or maybe just to relax and calm down. Everybody here has their own story, and their own life they’ve gone through, and it carries on with those whom they leave behind.”
You’ve got to put yourself aside to take care of them, to serve them,” he added. “And I’m just glad to be here.”