Every culture has its own rituals and traditions for laying their loved ones to rest. I’m biased doubtless, but I think there are none more beautiful than those of the Old Order Mennonite culture I grew up in.
When the death message goes out, the immediate family gathers as quickly as they can at the house of mourning. Sometimes the body of their loved one is still there. There are no words to describe the emotions as you watch your loved one be zipped into a body bag and carried away. Nothing in life can prepare you for that harsh, final reality. Having family and friends and community gather around you with love and support is priceless.
During the brief time the body is at the funeral home for embalming, the family makes funeral arrangements and prepares for the intense activities of the next few days of home visitation. While the family is gathered making plans, neighbors and friends quietly filter in and start doing what they do when death calls one of their own. Fixing food, cleaning, washing windows, mowing the lawn, doing farm chores, bringing in wagons for extra hitching space – whatever needs to be done, there’s someone quietly taking care of it. Nobody is in charge, it’s just what the community has done for so long that everybody knows what to do. When death comes to your neighbor’s house, you go. You mourn with those who mourn by being there and tending to all their needs so they can be with their family and friends.
Some neighbor volunteers to coordinate the arrangements for meals, including the funeral dinner. Close friends and relatives arrange with the food coordinator to bring in meals during the days of visitation. It is an honor to do this and you often have to call quickly to get your name in. Church people also call the coordinator about making food for the funeral meal. Everything is taken care of quickly and quietly without bothering the family much at all. During the days of visitation, the community caters to their needs. Each day a few people will come to the house early and work quietly in the background, taking care of whatever needs to be done. The family is free to concentrate on their friends and relatives who come to grieve with them.
Generally, as soon as the body is returned to “The House” (what the community calls the home of the deceased), the home is open for visitation. Usually this begins within a half day or so from when the death occurs. It is understood that people are welcome to stop in at any time from mid morning until 8 or so at night. The immediate family spends as much time at The House as possible during those hours, going home only to do necessary chores and sleep.
Friends, extended family, neighbors, community members start coming – a trickle at first and then a heavy flow in the afternoons and evenings. They move through the rooms of people, greeting the family, expressing their love and sympathy with quiet, firm handshakes or warm hugs. The beautiful wooden casket might be in the room with the family or off in a separate room for private viewing.
Old friends and extended family who seldom see each other often sit and reminisce, sharing memories and family stories. It’s a family reunion of sorts, with grief and happy times all mixed together. A time where tears and laughter mingle in a wine of shared love. Life’s elements, the good and the bad, all pressed together, flowing out from hearts tendered with grief and sympathy and memory. A rich time for the family to grieve the loss of their loved one in the presence of those who love them and to process the things that churn in one’s heart when sorrow lays it bare. A mingling and cleansing of things too deep for words.
In the evenings or early in the mornings when visitors are gone, family members -spouses, children, grandchildren, siblings – can spend time with the body of their loved one. Remembering. Mourning. Saying good bye in the place where they did life together. Where they loved and laughed and learned. Letting the rawness of grief and parting sink into one’s heart and soul in the familiar presence of the walls of home and all the memories they contain.
On the morning of the funeral, the immediate family gathers back at the home of the deceased for a short private service before the funeral. A few neighbors come to help with the singing. Before the service, family members can spend last private moments with the body of their loved one in home surroundings. After the brief service, the pallbearers solemnly carry the beautiful handmade wooden casket containing the loved one out to the waiting hearse. The last exit from their earthly home, the place where life’s joys and sorrows were birthed and lived. Carefully, the men slide the casket into the regal, glass-sided hearse, waiting to take the beloved body on its final ride.
During the home service, men and boys from church are outside quietly lining up the horse and buggies in precise order for the funeral procession. The preacher’s buggy leads the procession, followed by the pallbearers. Then the ornate hearse drawn by two spirited horses comes next, two men riding atop. The family members’ buggies are lined up behind the hearse in the order of their ages. The family files out of the house behind the casket and quickly gets into their buggies. When everyone is ready, the procession starts slowly out the lane and heads toward the church. Family members with cars follow behind the line of buggies.
The procession winds its solemn way along the country roads to the church house. At the church, many people are standing outside, a sea of black, watching for the procession to arrive. Others are seated inside, waiting. The hearse stops in front of the church; the final ride is over. The horses stand there quietly as the pallbearers line up behind the hearse and wait for the family to assemble. As each buggy drives into the churchyard, someone steps up to take the horse and tie it at a reserved spot. After all the family has collected, the funeral director opens the glass door of the hearse and the pallbearers carefully slide the casket out and carry it up the steps into the church as the reverent crowd watches.
The preacher walks in front of the casket, leading the procession of mourners into the partially filled church and up the long aisle. The casket is wheeled to the front and the family follows behind the casket in the order of age. Aunts, uncles, and cousins file in solemnly behind the family and sit in the area reserved for “the friends” (extended family). This procedure takes a good while until everyone is seated. After all the family is seated, the hearse is quietly driven to a hitching spot and the people who waited outside are seated. Often the church that seats 600 is packed full and people stand around the walls. Sometimes there is not room for everyone to get inside and they stand outside near the doors or open windows.
The funeral service begins with singing and lasts about an hour and half to two hours, with preaching interspersed with more songs. After the service ends, the undertaker opens the casket for the final viewing and the entire congregation files by the casket in two lines and goes out to the cemetery. Little children are lifted to see inside the casket. After everyone but the immediate family has viewed, the church doors are closed and the family has a final private viewing time with their loved one. The congregation waits quietly outside.
When the church doors reopen, the waiting crowd stands attentively as the casket is brought out. A row of preachers leads the procession through the cemetery, wending their way slowly to the grave. The pallbearers behind them strain on the long walk, bearing their precious load one last time. Sorrowing family members follow the beloved body of their loved one to its final resting place.
At the grave, the immediate family is seated and the crowd of mourners closes in around them, a wall of comfort. Everyone waits quietly while the casket is prepared to be lowered into the wooden rough box below. Children and adults watch closely as the solemn rituals are performed and the beautiful casket carrying its precious cargo is lowered into the earth. When the casket is safely in place and the lid put on the rough box, the pallbearers take hold of their shovels and begin gently scooping dirt into the the grave. Singing fills the air as clumps of earth fall onto the casket. “Asleep in Jesus, blessed sleep.” “High in yonder realms of light, dwell the raptured saints above.” “Oh, think of the home over there.” Music about heaven surrounds the mourners as their loved one is covered with clay. Tears fall inside and out as the grave slowly fills; hearts overflow.
When the grave is finally filled and the mound of fresh earth gently smoothed, the singing stops. A minister speaks a few final words of comfort, then prays, committing the body to the earth “from whence it came” and the soul “to God Who gave it.” Then friends gather around the family, offering last words of solace.
Afterwards, the family goes back to the house for a meal with close friends, relatives, and out-of-state visitors. They share a final afternoon of visiting and more reminiscing and memories.
Then all the visitors and neighbors go home.
And the family, weary to the bone from the long days of mourning, is alone. Surrounded by an invisible wall of love and warm memories from grief shared by a caring community. A wall that will lend comfort in the long months ahead as the family faces the hard task of grief working its way fully into their minds and hearts.
It is a beautiful way to say good bye to someone you love.