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A flash flood reveals the secret world of Amish funerals

By: Justin Nobel | Date: Mon, March 28th, 2011

The Amish keep their death rituals private but last month reporters were able to peak into this world after a terrible horse-drawn buggy accident in Kentucky.

A family was traveling to a neighbor’s home to use a community telephone when the buggy toppled in a rain-swollen creek. Four children, all cousins or siblings, were swept away by the churning water; one was 5, one was 7, one was 11 and one was just five months-old. The creek they perished in is normally a trickle but thunderstorms had dropped several inches of rain in just hours, prompting the National Weather Service to issue a flash flood warning for the entire county. While many residents noticed the warning scroll across their TV screens or heard it on the radio, the Amish live without electricity. It is possible the family never got the message, noted one weather forecaster.

There are nearly 8,000 Amish living in Kentucky and 250,000 in total scattered across the US. The Amish are followers of the Mennonite Church, a group that originally came from Switzerland, led by Jakob Ammann, who began a schism with the Swiss Alsatian Anabaptists in 1693. His followers became the Amish, and in the early 18th century many of them immigrated to Pennsylvania, facing religious persecution and poverty back in Europe. To this day, their life has changed very little. They still speak a peculiar language known as Pennsylvanian German, follow a strict organizational doctrine known as the Ordnung, abstain from using electricity, automobiles and clothing other than their own, educate their children in one room Amish schoolhouses that often stop at the eighth grade and refuse to serve in the military, buy insurance or accept government assistance, such as social security. Breaking the Amish code can lead to excommunication or public shaming. It is a simple stark life, and nowhere is this more apparent than in death.

After a death, family members wash the body then take it by horse-drawn hearse to a local funeral home. The undertaker embalms the body, using no makeup or cosmetics, and dresses it in long underwear before placing it in a simple six-sided pine coffin and returning it to the family. Friends and neighbors come to view the body in a room stripped of furniture decorations. It is a somber affair, with both men and women dressed in black, sitting quietly. Guests are led one by one to the coffin and a white sheet is pulled back, revealing the face of the deceased. Hinged pieces atop the coffin allow only the chest-up portion of the body to be viewed.

There is no eulogizing, no funny childhood tales told. Instead, a minister delivers the creation story, talking about how man came from dust and shall return to dust. Lines from the bible are recited, often ones dealing with the resurrection of the dead, such as Corinthians 15, or portions of John 5: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life.”

Buggies make their way to the cemetery, following a designated order that is written in chalk on the side of each buggy. There are no flowers, there is no singing, there are no eulogies. A hymn is read and all pray. The coffin is set in an outer wood structure called a rough box then lowered into a hand-dug grave. Gravestones are uniform and unadorned, as signs of status and wealth are shunned by the Amish. After the body has been laid to rest, all file back into their carriages and return to the home for a simple meal.

One of the most publicized Amish funeral events in recent history was for the girls killed by crazed gunman Charles Robert IV, who broke into a one room schoolhouse near the Amish community of Nickel Mines, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and shot ten girls and then himself. Media were barred from the funeral but in a sign of typical Amish good-heartedness, the killer’s wife was invited. “We must not think evil of this man,” a grandfather of one of the murdered girls exclaimed to young relatives at the funeral. Another Amish man agreed: “He had a mother and a wife and a soul, and now he’s standing before a just God.”

One thought on “A flash flood reveals the secret world of Amish funerals”

  1. Sharon Bigler

    The thought has crossed my mind . . . with so much publicity and discussion by the news media about school shootings and shooting in a movie theature why haven’t the precious little children in West Nickle Mines who lost their lives ever included in these reports. I feel they have been forgoten . . . what has been done for these little girls? There was a public outpouring for the Sandy Hook Elementary school children, the West Nickle Mines little girls are just as precious and deserve the same love all the others have received.

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