The little boy I posted about a few weeks ago died on the weekend. I found out about it yesterday when I went down to do a couple of visits and no one was home. They were at his funeral. What a devastating blow for this family, to have a three year old who was apparently the picture of health until a few weeks ago, sucked down and killed by a sudden and horrible disease. I will go and see them soon, to give my sympathy, to hold a hand and shed some tears with his mother.
It’s not the first time we’ve lost a baby or child in this settlement, but it’s always hard. And it’s always hard for the parents, regardless of how many children they have. Their lives are precious, their deaths bring enormous grief, despite their belief that the child is now with God.
I have had the privilege of attending two funerals for children that have died — one a baby who inexplicably died with SIDS and another who had a congenital heart defect. Like church services and marriages, funerals are held in the home. Because, for the most part, death occurs at home, and because the Amish in this settlement do not embalm, funerals are held very soon after a death.
First comes the viewing. It amazes me how quickly rooms will be rearranged to accommodate the many who may come, benches lined up, the downstairs bedroom disassembled to accommodate the body, washed and arranged. Viewing is expected and, at both funerals I attended, I was asked if I wished to see the baby. The viewing may occur the day before the actual funeral. Food is inevitably present, and people visit and console those who are mourning. At the same time, there are many busy hands ensuring that the house and surrounding environment are clean and ready for the service.
The services I attended were held in the carriage sheds, to accommodate the number of people who attended. Prior to the service, the women will be gathered in one area and the men in another, visiting and discussing the sad event. There are elders who organize in what order people will file into the service, and we are included in that organizing process. People line up and sit on benches in the shed, men on one side and women on the other, facing one another. But before that, we view the body, which in the funerals I attended, was displayed in the little casket placed on two chair outside the shed, on the lawn. Interestingly, small children are encouraged to touch the body as they pass by. Unlike the English, the Amish do not protect their young from the realities of death.
The service is long, and in High German, so almost completely incomprehensible to the non-Amish. (I do understand “Gott” and “Himmel”, but very little else.) When I attended my first funeral, I visited a pregnant relation shortly after and she asked me if I understood any of it; when I confessed that I did not, she said “I don’t understand it all, either”. Interesting — because, of course, High German is different from the dialect that they speak to each other daily. Still, we sit respectfully, kneel down to pray (which is done by facing the benches). Everyone knows what should be done, and when.
After the service, the body is viewed once more before the casket is closed, and people head to the little cemetery for internment. At the last funeral I attended, the public health nurse who attended with me and I noted, with some amusement and admiration, that there *is* a system to organize all of the many horses and buggies — the horses and buggies were each chalked with numbers to ensure that the correct horse was matched and hitched up to the correct buggy!
I haven’t attended an internment, but I imagine that the ceremony there and the markers are as simple and “plain” as everything else. Sufficient to meet the need and no more, or that would be proud.
I listened last week to a documentary last week on the CBC on the avaricious and profitable funeral industry. Interestingly, one of the former funeral directors interviewed is now a midwifery student at the University of British Columbia. But I thought a good deal about how the Amish deal with dying and death, and how we might do ourselves a great service to return to simpler and more respectful ways.