Rituals of death and remembrance

Photo: John Thomas, Unsplash.

Recently my wife and I attended the funeral of her Old Order Amish cousin who died on Easter Sunday at the age of 82. Funerals and other rituals around death embody a community’s deepest values, beliefs and ideals. Christians affirm that death is only a passage to eternal life with God and the saints. Yet our mortality is shrouded with a cloud of unknowing. In that space of unknowing, funeral rituals help the living make sense of this most elemental disruption and to put our own lives into perspective. 

The Amish funeral we attended was clearly a community event. Some 600 people had taken off work for the occasion — 500 crowded into rows of benches in a large outbuilding and 100 seated in the basement of the home. The gathering, which lasted nearly three hours, included four sermons, each preached in German without amplification or notes. 

Following long-established custom, the sermons traced the arc of salvation history, beginning with the seven days of Creation, moving through the covenant promise to Abraham and a reflection on the Beatitudes before concluding with long excerpts read from the Revelation of John. 

At one point, everyone turned around in the narrow spaces between our benches and knelt for a prayer that concluded with a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. Near the end of the service, in a carefully choreographed order, all 600 people filed past the open casket, pausing briefly before returning to their seats.

The moment the service concluded, teams of men mobilized to stack benches into tables; food miraculously appeared; and the first wave of mourners began to eat lunch while others quietly conversed to await a second (and presumably third) shift at the tables. Outside, a stream of buggies made its way to a nearby cemetery to accompany the family at the burial. 

I left the funeral deeply moved, my mind humming about the many strands of theology, culture and tradition that are woven into our rituals of death and remembrance. 

Like other Mennonite churches
in North America today, rituals around death are slowly changing in my congregation in northern Indiana. Since many of us are transplants to the community, we are not likely to be buried in the family plots of our grandparents or the cemeteries of the churches that baptized us. We like the idea of being remembered among the cloud of witnesses associated with our church family, but zoning restrictions make it nearly impossible for us to create our own cemetery. We also have growing questions about land stewardship, the rising costs of funerals and the environmental impact of embalming.

In response, our congregation has recently affirmed the growing practice of cremation by creating a columbarium as part of a memorial garden that we created close to our church. The columbarium includes niches for cremains as well as commemorative spaces to name those in our church family who are buried elsewhere. I anticipate that my body, if not first given to medical research, will be cremated.  

This is a relatively new practice among North American Mennonites. But customs are never absolutely rigid. And they vary significantly within our Anabaptist-Mennonite family. Mennonites in Switzerland and other parts of Europe, for example, can only claim a gravesite for a limited time, generally around 30 years, before yielding it to the next generation. 

A week after attending the Amish funeral, I walked through a cemetery in Curitiba, Brazil, while participating in a Mennonite World Conference gathering. Mennonites established the cemetery in a pasture field outside of Curitiba not long after immigrating from Germany and South Russia in the 1930s. But ensuing urban growth swallowed up the pasture, and the Boqueirão cemetery, now public, reflects a fascinating blend of Mennonite and Catholic names, many with photos affixed to large family mausoleums. 

Mennonites in Brazil do not embalm the dead, which means funerals must take place very soon after the death. While Brazilian Catholics understand the overnight wake as a social setting, where friends and family participate in a struggle for the soul of the deceased with prayers and candles, Mennonites scandalize their neighbors by “abandoning” the body overnight in their churches before returning the next day for the viewing and funeral. 

Among the Brethren in Christ in Zimbabwe, burial is often delayed for days awaiting the arrival of distant family members, and services are conducted at a vigil every evening until the day of the funeral. 

What is the blend of theology, tradition and culture in the funeral rituals of your community? What practices are changing? Which rituals do you hope will endure?  

John D. Roth

John D. Roth is project director of MennoMedia’s Anabaptism at 500.

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