Heavy white flakes of snow fell from the sky, as the cars pulled up the hill to Fairview Cemetery.
In stark contrast to the ground and solemn headstones of the cemetery layered in white, stood the crimson and black of the Prince Rupert RCMP in their Red Serge and the black uniforms of young sea cadets — one carrying the blanket-wrapped urn holding the ashes of Private Earl Danford Corliss.
Earl’s family had travelled from Burns Lake, Kitimat and Lax Kw’alaams to honour the man who waited 22 years to be buried next to his wife, Salome. Many others from the community, some of whom had never met Earl, also joined the memorial for the World War II veteran who, near the end of his life, was relegated by either choice or situation to live in a cardboard box inside the gutted remains of a burnt-out hotel.
“We’ve been looking forward to this,” Rhoda Corliss said. She’d come with her husband George, who was Earl’s nephew. They had driven from Burns Lake with their son Keith and his wife Sharlene. On the drive into Prince Rupert in the morning they said that they saw nothing but snow.
“It was a day like today, pretty miserable, when we made the special trip to get the urn,” George said. Earl’s ashes stayed with them for years, unsure of what they should or could do with him.
At the cemetery, Inspector Blake Ward marched with the other Mounties and cadets to the gravesite where Salome lay. Chaplain Derry Bott presided over the ceremony, and placed a single, red poppy on the urn once he was finished his service.
Next to the family stood Danielle Dalton, the customer service coordinator with the City of Prince Rupert who had picked Earl up in early January on her drive through Burns Lake back to the North Coast.
Dalton read a poem written by Earl entitled “Winter” — a suitable verse, spoken aloud as the snowfall intensified, gently resting on the onlookers’ heads and shoulders.
“A dull thud of some deadwood.
“The snap of far-off pine as nature breaks a solitude and speaks of wintertime,” Dalton read from Earl’s poem.
After the memorial, Keith lingered by the grave on his own. The self-professed softy in the family admitted that he didn’t even know that his parents had Earl’s ashes until he read the story on Earl in the Northern View last year.
Keith sometimes visits the old homestead in the bush near Burns Lake, where Earl and George had once lived. Out in the woods, Earl had rigged up a waterwheel to power the cabin. Learning more about his great uncle this past year has brought him a renewed connection to the land.
“I can take my three boys back to the homestead and there’s some history behind it,” he told me.
Members from Salome’s side of the family had also learned more about their family history and came from Lax Kw’alaams and Kitimat to be at Earl’s memorial service.
“I thought both Salome and Earl were already buried,” Jean Ryan said, who lives in Kitimat. Ryan’s grandmother was Salome’s sister. She never met Earl or Salome but that didn’t matter.
“Dad always said ‘It’s family.’ Our tradition is to be there for each other,” she said.
After the memorial, there was a reception at the Royal Canadian Legion. The Corliss family met with the Tait and Ryan family — relatives of Salome.
George Corliss had been quite unwell for some time but surprised everyone by making the trip to Prince Rupert for his uncle’s memorial service. Being back on the coast revived old memories from 1950 when he came to work at the cannery with his dad for a season. At the time, he lived in a cabin behind Earl’s home.
He remembers his uncle as inventive, kind, who smoked like a chimney and tipped the odd pint. As a saw filer, he said Earl never had trouble finding work.
“Uncle spent a lot of time in Kitimat when it was being built,” George said. He also remembered more details about Salome, who was born and raised in Port Essington and worked as a professional cook in Prince Rupert.
Another woman who came to the memorial wanted to be there due to her family’s connection with Salome. Barb Hood said that her grandfather had employed Salome and her family had cared for her from 1919 until 1942, when she married Earl.
Residents who didn’t know Earl also attended in spite of the weather. Judy Riddell with the Prince Rupert and District Hospice Society said she came because she felt that he should be honoured. Riddell has lived in the city for 34 years and said she might have seen him once or twice.
She wanted to share the message that, “There are more people than you think who are there to stand with you in the end.”
The Last Post
All that remains now, after the interment, is that the Last Post will send the gravestone with both Earl and Salome’s names etched on the face to the city for the final installment.
For Wendel Ottmann, the retired RCMP officer who brought Earl’s story to life, he will continue to pursue having a homeless shelter named after the veteran.
Currently, there is no homeless shelter for men in Prince Rupert, but the North Coast Transition Society is working on changing that. In conversation with James McNish, who has been tasked to investigate the demand for a homeless shelter in Prince Rupert, he said “the resounding response is that we absolutely need it.”
McNish is the Housing First Project Coordinator for the North Coast Transition Society. He has been gathering information and bridging ideas for a possible homeless shelter — which will ultimately hinge on funding from the province.
When asked if a shelter did come to Prince Rupert, if it would be named the “Earl Corliss Village”, as Ottmann requested, McNish responded that they’re still in the early stages but all suggestions are welcome.
As one chapter closes in the Earl Corliss story, perhaps another will open — but regardless, the memory of a homeless veteran has been remembered.
Lest we forget.