Tuesday, July 21, 2015

An Amish Cousin's Homegoing


There’s a serene beauty about the plain Amish way of life, as anyone who has any familiarity with the community knows. Jay and I were reminded of that this week as we visited one of my first cousins, who was dying, and then attended her viewing a couple of days later.

We’d known her cancer was terminal for several weeks, and we kept meaning to go to see her, but one thing and another got in the way. We didn’t realize how much her condition had deteriorated until her sister-in-law called Tuesday to let us know that if we wanted to visit her, we’d better come soon. So on Wednesday Jay and I went up to Michigan with a couple of my first cousins. We were blessed that she recognized us and told us she was ready to go to Jesus. One of her sisters called the next day to let me know she had gone home early that morning, so we were very grateful we visited when we did.

When someone dies, the Amish hold the funeral as quickly as possible. Viewing was set for Friday and Saturday at her brother’s house, with the funeral taking place yesterday. We were able to attend the viewing Friday and were struck again by the peace and stability of this community, so different from the constant hurry and distraction of modern culture. Buggies were gathering out by the barn on their tidy farm as we headed into my cousin’s expansive house. It’s beautifully built and provides plenty of room for visitors and family gatherings, while their large basement is a great space for the church to meet when it’s the family’s turn to host worship.

We arrived just as they were beginning to serve the large array of food the women of the church had already brought in for the family. It was a little early for dinner, and we hadn’t expected that, but they all insisted we help ourselves, and was it ever good! We thoroughly enjoyed visiting seated at tables out on the wrap-around porch. The Amish adults were all dressed in black, with the men’s crisp white shirts and the women’s white coverings making a striking contrast to the sober color of suits and dresses. And I love to see the sweet little ones, all dressed identically to the grown-ups. One precious little girl squeezed between the chairs to stand close beside me, and I gathered her up on my lap and talked to her for a little bit. But she was too young to understand English yet, so after a few minutes she slipped down and ran off to play.

There was a lot of talk and laughter and catching up with family members we hadn’t seen for a while or weren’t acquainted with. The death of a loved one is always a solemn event and there’s grief, of course. But as Christians, when a fellow believer dies we share the comfort of knowing that Jesus did away with death’s sting and that we’ll be reunited with our loved ones in heaven.

By the time we finished eating, it was growing late, and as more families from the church began to arrive, we joined our cousins down in the large, open basement for a little while. Church benches had been set up there, with the casket behind a homemade screen, as is common at Amish viewings. Visitors pass around this, and then down the line of closest relatives, solemnly greeting and giving a firm handshake to each person before taking their place at the opposite end of the room.

Since the Amish don’t allow electricity, many families like my cousins install gas pipes in their homes for ceiling gaslights similar to the one in the photo to the right, which I grabbed from the Amish America blog (thank you, Erik!). These aren’t lit until dark, and since it was after 6 by now, the space was dim and cool, with the only light coming from the stairway, the large windows at the top of the walls and the glass double doors that opened directly outside.

When a sufficient number of the younger married couples had arrived, many with little ones in tow, the song leader began to lead them in the long, drawn-out plain chant of the ancient hymns commonly sung at funerals, all in German, of course. We stayed through the first one, which took at least ten minutes to sing, maybe longer. The voices mingled with such a haunting beauty in the large space that we listened entranced and were sorry when we had to leave for the drive home.

I would have loved to take some pictures to share, but I never do so at events like this in respect for Amish beliefs. The picture of buggies at the top left was taken the Hochstetler Gathering in Goshen a few years ago. Here’s a link to a recent article about an Amish funeral in Holmes County, Ohio, that gives an idea of what the funeral would be like. I imagine some of the details may be different among the Michigan Amish as separate communities do develop some traditions of their own. If you’re unfamiliar with the Amish and/or are interested in learning more, the Amish America blog is a veritable font of information.

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