In the early days of Yellowknife, gold and opportunity brought north many eccentric characters whose exploits passed into folklore. Among them was Wally “Burial” Smith, the town’s dual undertaker and cab driver.
In his 1984 essay, “North of Sixty,” famed Canadian author Mordecai Richler describes how “Burial” would barrel through Yellowknife’s bumpy streets, a sign prominently displayed in his vehicle's window: “$15 lying down, $2.50 sitting up.”
Richler may have adjusted for inflation. In Yellowknife: An Illustrated History, former northern RCMP constable Garth Hampson remembers those prices back in 1958 as $5 for the dead or 50 cents for the living.
“At that time, there were a number of minor injuries where the patients didn’t require a stretcher,” explains Wally and his wife, Elsie, in the aforementioned illustrated history. “So we would take them sitting up. The taxi owners kicked (mainly Frame & Perkins), so I applied and received a taxi license. My signs around town read, ‘Smith’s Ambulance: Sitting up Patients at Taxi Rates.’”
Smith moved with his family from Calgary to Yellowknife in 1946. He and Elsie were the first funeral directors in the Northwest Territories and operated its first ambulance service, as well. Though it was rough going at first.
“Wally and his family started out in a tent,” writes journalist Merle Duprey in a profile of Smith from 1985. “Casket crates were piled on top of one another to partition rooms in close quarters. Funerals were usually conducted under less than ideal conditions.”
That’s putting it mildly. Graveside funerals in winter would take place in minus 50-degree weather. As no graves could be dug in the permafrost at those temperatures, “Burial” (also called “Buryin’” and “Bury All”) would have to estimate the coming season’s losses in summer, writes Richler, “and, anticipating, dig the necessary holes.”
The Smith family stayed in Yellowknife until 1969. They and many other old-timers moved out during that period as the Gold Rush faded from memory and Yellowknife grew up into a government town.
The Smiths lived for two years in Kelowna before relocating to the small community of Quesnel, British Columbia. “Burial” worked for a time as an auctioneer, then returned to the funeral business before eventually retiring. Even then, among the several classic cars that he kept in his garage was a 1964 Pontiac hearse that he’d loan out when needed.
But his legend still lives on in Yellowknife, most recently in a 2012 spoken word album by storyteller Jim Green. The image of a funeral director-cum-taxi driver is that perfect combination of the absurd and the practical—mixed in with a little macabre humour—that makes for a great tall tale of northern living.
“There used to be a saying here,” said one old Yellowknifer to Richler. “If you died during the winter, they would sharpen your head and drive you in with a sledgehammer or, if you were a crooked bastard, they’d simply screw you into the ground.”