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Finding ways to fondly remember the dead

Walking into Hospice Yukon you notice a peaceful calm, an unusual break from the rushing cars moving down Fourth Avenue. Instrumental music plays quietly in the background and soft chairs beckon.

Walking into Hospice Yukon you notice a peaceful calm, an unusual break from the rushing cars moving down Fourth Avenue.

Instrumental music plays quietly in the background and soft chairs beckon.

Suzanne Picot welcomes you in her gentle, calming voice and offers a cup of her Crag Lake coffee.

“It’s a special blend, one that I designed with my friend Gail,” she said looking in the direction of a small display perched on the edge of her desk.

The display, no taller than a foot, shows pictures of a treehouse burrowed in the woods. Beneath the photos is a glass bottle with a long sheaf of paper slipped down its narrow throat. A set of wooden ravens stands atop of the display with a written sign pressed between them.

Picot created the vigil to honour her long-time friend Gail Wilson, who passed away in April.

It’s one of several vigils that will crowd the foyer of the Elijah Smith Building this week for Hospice Yukon’s annual Lights of Life.

The event, in its 19th year, is an opportunity for people to publicly remember friends and relatives who have passed away.

It’s particularly significant for Picot, whose friend shied away from conventional ceremonies and chose not to have a funeral.

Even though Wilson decided against this timeless ritual, it was still important for her to mark that moment in her life, said Picot.

As an administrator for Hospice Yukon she’s recently noticed fewer people are choosing to have funerals to mark their passing.

She thinks it might be because people are less religious nowadays. But it could also be the unusually independent nature of Yukoners that explains the decrease of the public ritual.

“I’m not sure if it’s a trend happening everywhere else, but if you look at the declining trend of marriages elsewhere, then perhaps ... ” she said.

If someone doesn’t want a funeral when they pass away, the challenge is for friends and relatives to find a way to individually grieve and find closure from that death outside the conventional route.

“In the case of Gail, I didn’t want her life unnoticed or unmentioned,” said Picot who, before Wilson had even died, had decided to build a treehouse in her honour.

When she moved into her property on Crag Lake, there was a dilapidated treehouse in the woods that she had long thought of rebuilding.

After Wilson passed away, she began working on the structure. By the fall, the treehouse was repainted and furnished with books and remembrances of her friend.

The inside and outside feature more than 100 carved, wooden ravens which Wilson used to decorate and sell to people.

The windows are framed with painted rulers (Wilson used to be a school teacher) and the floor is blanketed by the coffee bean sacks Wilson and Picot were sitting on they day they designed their special Crag Lake coffee blend.

Whenever a new guest comes to Picot’s house, she sends them down to the hard-to-find treehouse with a map and a “library sack” of books.

“The treehouse has that special dimension where you can go and feel (Wilson’s) presence,” said Picot.

“Maybe Gail didn’t know she had such an impact on my life, but she really enriched my life.”

Picot met Wilson 10 years ago when she moved to Crag Lake.

The two became close right away, often working on creative projects together.

One summer, Wilson taught Picot how to sew. Another, they pieced together a quilt made entirely from clothing labels.

Wilson was sick for quite awhile, so Picot was anticipating her death. Even so, the day she died was memorable, said Picot. That day a large snowstorm ripped through Whitehorse.

“The streets had all been dry and then suddenly, after I got news of her death, the wind lifted and there were huge snowflakes falling to the ground,” said Picot.

“It was so noteworthy and striking. I felt it as (Wilson’s) soul leaving her body.”

Picot was so moved by Wilson’s death she wrote a note she copied and sealed into five different glass bottles. She threw four of these bottles into Crag Lake watching them slip away into the water.

She’s planning on sending off the fifth one, which she is using in her Lights of Life display, next summer.

Picot is hoping her display inspires other people to find creative ways of honouring their loved ones.

“We don’t always have religious stuff to fall back on. And not doing something isn’t right; the circle just isn’t complete.”

The opening ceremony for the Lights of Life will be December 17 at 12:15 p.m. in the foyer of the Elijah Smith Building.

The display will run until December 23.

Contact Vivian Belik at