An Amish Funeral

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R.W. Bradford, founder of this journal, loved the unusual features of America and its people, and always sought articles about them. When he didn’t find good articles, he wrote them himself. Liberty has always been especially interested in the variety of communities Americans have created. As Isabel Paterson observed, even “closed communities” can succeed in America, because they are embedded in an open society. Paul Hochstetler is a descendant of an Amish community. He presents an inside-outside view of a place and a people in northern Indiana, observed when he took his 91-year-old father to the funeral of his father's sister-in-law.

— Stephen Cox

“Sis kalt du-miha,” said the man as he and his two small sons sat on the bench next to me. In my brain began the 1-2-3 count as I processed this statement. Then, recognizing the meaning ("It's cold this morning") and breaking the flow of Deitch, I agreed, and indicated that was why I was still wearing my hoodie. Though it was dark blue and I was wearing a white shirt (heavy, not dress) and black jeans, the clothing still looked a bit too flashy — too Anglish.

That wasn’t the first Deitch addressed to me that morning. One of Uncle Lonnie’s boys greeted me with “Hochstetla” as he shook my hand. I thought of Number Two at work who often barks out a last name as a greeting. Or was he playfully introducing himself? Perhaps he was identifying me as “one of them.” I thoughtfully raised my finger to my cheek as I replied in Deitch, “I believe I am.”

Roads that day were much clearer than I had anticipated. Still, getting there had adventure potential. Service begins at 9:00 a.m. on January 3, at Herman Miller’s, I was told. Yet, the location was a mystery even as my father and Iset out at 7:20 for the funeral of Aunt Katie.

Visions of crisscrossing LaGrange County roads appeared before me. We’d stop at every house that looked funereal, eventually staggering in ten or 20 minutes late. But Dad had his plan . . . revealed as we drove. Go to where Willis and Katie, my aunt and uncle,had lived (at a son’s home) and see if anything can be learned there.

The plan’s flaw was that he couldn’t remember exactly which road east of LaGrange led to this home. So we went several miles too far and zigzagged our way back in the bright morning sun. Soon we saw a buggy and assumed it was headed where we wanted to go. We passed it, and over a hill was another buggy. Dad suggested hailing them, but their side curtains were tightly drawn against the cold.

Then a van came down a crossroad — probably an Amish-transporter. We were not surprised because there are many who make money by taking groups of Amish to reunions and funerals. Many cross state lines with their cargo. He turned in our direction, so we stopped him. Yes, we were very close. In fact, the house was about one-quarter mile from the Hochstetler place we had originally sought.

When the last two rows behind me returned, one man began to sing a mournful phrase and “suddenly there was a multitude” — the choir.

The service began at 9:30 and this was not the Herman Miller place. The (apparently added-to) shed used for the funeral had three rooms and a cement floor. Scattered about were several radiant heater discs attached to propane tanks. A large tent had been erected next to the shed area (how did they get those stakes pounded into the frozen ground?), but the tent was not used for the funeral. Perhaps it was part of the viewing that had begun on New Year’s afternoon. Surely not overflow, because anyone in there would not have been able to watch and listen through closed-circuit TV. A port-a-potty was outside and I was reminded of an outhouse.

Dad was seated next to Aunt Ellen in the siblings’ area near a stove. People continued arriving and the rooms became warm enough. A group of teenaged Amish boys slid into the row behind me at about 9:25. I wondered if they had been outside being young or perhaps helping with the incoming horses and buggies. The last two rows in “our” room were filled with what was later revealed to be the male choir.

The first preacher stood, beginning tentatively but becoming stronger. His style made me think of a chant. Not a lulling chant, but more of a harangue. It clearly was not his conversational voice. Uncharitably, a passage from Elmer Gantry sprang to mind: “What a rotten pulpit voice the poor duck has.”

He spoke for 35 minutes, and the next man — much easier to listen to — went on for 50. Of course, only the occasional word or phrase was recognizable, along with several Bible stories.

Suddenly there was a swooshing of clothes and scraping of feet and benches as all rose, knelt, and flung themselves across the benches for a prayer. I reacted as quickly as I could. After that there must have been a scripture reading, because twice everyone genuflected (“at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow”). This too took me by surprise, because I didn’t properly hear the words. (I also remembered that at the funeral of Aunt Ellen’s husband, Dad was next to me and when the appropriate moment came, he placed his knee behind mine to make me “go down.”)

It was during this reading that all the women on our side turned around. I didn’t see it happen on the other side (and the third, smaller room was completely out of sight) but Ellen seems to think it did. Some inquiries did not yield a definite answer about this practice but two persons thought it dated back to early Anabaptist gatherings in Europe when it was important to watch for persecutors. The second preacher said that was probably why, but (and this seemed the compelling reason), “we’ve always done it this way.”

The minister continued with a reading of the obituary (“gross-kinna”), and the “undertaker” removed the top portion of the lid. That was the signal for all to file past. When the last two rows behind me returned, one man began to sing a mournful phrase and “suddenly there was a multitude” — the choir. It was a four-line song (I was later told the last two lines were the same on every verse). At the end of the verse, without a break, the next phrase was soloed, followed by the entry of the choir.

They sang while the rest of the gathered made their pilgrimage. Then the undertaker came to their row and gave a sign (though not the dramatic finger across the throat that I anticipated), and they stopped at the end of the verse. The family had their final viewing, the lid was replaced, wraps were brought to the family, the pallbearers picked up the casket, and the service was over.

Dad went to the cemetery in a van — red with a front license plate proclaiming “Mama’s Fire Truck.” This was another van which had been used to carry Amish to the funeral.He told me later that a tent had been erected that reduced the wind, but there was a bit of a battle to loosen the frozen top of the dirt when they were refilling the grave.

In gazing over the group I was reminded of penguins: all the dark dresses and white coverings and the white shirts with dark suits.

Immediately after the departure of the Amish hearse (a two-seat buggy with an extension on back for carrying the casket), tables replaced the benches in the smaller room and the food was arranged on both sides of the tables. This setup became the dual assembly line as each woman filled a compartment of a Styrofoam tray and passed it forward for the eventual recipient.

I’d like to say, quoting Dickens’ Christmas Carol, “O the pudding,” but there was none. It was the standard Amish funeral starch festival: white bread bologna sandwich (lightly coated with mayo or, more likely, sandwich spread), a slice of cheese on the side, a cup of chicken and noodles, potato salad, a hunk of jello with fruit cocktail, and a cupcake. Still, very good on a cold day.

I told Dad not to be rushed and stay as long as he liked. Meanwhile, I wandered around and talked to a few people — most of whom began with the question, “Are you Paul”? I also re-met Paul Hochstetler — one of Uncle Omer’s sons and was reminded of how Uncle Omer copycatted Mom and Dad with the names Lamar and Paul for his kids.

In gazing over the group I was reminded of penguins: all the dark dresses and white coverings and the white shirts with dark suits. Two other impressions: too many women looked stoop-shouldered at an early age and too many men had bad teeth. But whatever else one thinks, they do have a strong community.




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