Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Grandma Annie's Old Order Mennonite Funeral

2012-01-07_Boy's Benches by Mark Burr
2012-01-07_Boy's Benches, a photo by Mark Burr on Flickr.

When I was ten years old, I traveled to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania for my Great grandmother Annie's funeral. I had dreaded the trip where I had to wear dresses the whole week, but quickly forgot my discomfort when I was enchanted with feeling as if I'd stepped into the prior century.

I had already fallen in love with Laura Ingalls, had my own sunbonnet, and a "half-pint" size of curiosity about things of the past. So, after wakening from a night's sleep on a hay tick bed, watching my Great Aunt Mattie stir up the fire in the wrought iron cook stove and make me toast without a traditional electrified toaster--I was quickly enthralled into the conservative Mennonite world of my distant relatives.

I remember the evening before the funeral was spent at Grandma Annie's viewing, or wake. It was a closed casket made of plain pine wood that sat along one wall of the darkened home filled with plainly dressed Old Order Mennonite relatives who spoke in quiet hushed Dutch mixed with English. The language wasn't too foreign for me since I'd had Amish babysitters growing up, but I can't speak Dutch, so I listened and observed quietly curious.

The next day we piled into my Grandpa John's truck, ready to head to the church. When we turned onto the pike that lead out the church, I remember that morning as a frosty, sunny morning with little color left on the trees, but the green of the grass hadn't yet faded fully. The view that is cemented upon my memory is of a long line of buggies that followed the horse drawn hearse that lead the slow plodding procession.

Once we got the the church, a white washed plain stone building surrounded by plain cemetery stones, we entered the church for the service. Instead of two long rows of pews on either side of an aisle, as I was used to at my home church, this church held plain pine benches that faced a platform in the center of the far wall. The benches faced the platform from three different directions. Several men in black straight coat jackets sat along the benches upon the platform. Me, my mother, and my grandparents made a small minority of English dressed among the majority who were plainly dressed in black and white.

Men sat on the right hand side, and women on the left. I told Mom, it was good Dad had stayed home in Indiana! Black hats lined the outer walls on the right side--black bonnets to the left, hanging from pegs that lined the walls of the parameter. We sat in a hushed silence followed by prayer in Dutch from a leading elder or deacon who stood on the platform. Each of the men took turns preaching. I thought English sermons were long, but multiple sermons in Dutch topped the cake! Then we sang and I hoped I might hear something familiar. But no. No four part harmony. No shaped notes or regular "sheet music" of the usual hymnal I'd grown up with--just a small book written in Dutch with only one word I could read: the Dutch word for Jesus typed in German script.

Finally, the group stood and filed outside the church to a small graveside where Grandma Annie's coffin sat near a pile of dirt. There was no tent, no fake carpet to hide the dirt pile or the fact that she was returning to the dust from whence she'd come. It was cold and windy by then but I was still enthralled by the events. The deacons read more scriptures and prayed again before six strong men lowered the casket with ropes and then shoveled the dirt back into place. Grandma Annie was in her 90's and lived a long and good life. I don't recall many tears shed, just a solemn gratefulness for her life and love. I learned she'd been a tall, slim, graceful lady who loved Jesus--not surprising to me since my Grandpa John had similar character.

My only memories after the funeral were of a wonderful meal served in the home of my mom's cousins. Long tables had been set up all through the house with full place settings. The meal was simple and good, I think I recall Lebanon Balogne sandwiches on fresh homemade wheat bread.

I cherish such a memory and hope you enjoy the sharing of it here. 

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