A few years ago, my family took a trip to the Amish country in Ohio. It was an intensely fascinating experience for us and I walked away with a deep respect for the way the Amish work and live so simply on their land, yet so intentionally within their community.
–We also enjoyed some really good peanut butter pies.–
One thing which really impresses upon me as I learn more about Amish customs is their concept surrounding the importance of working together. The Amish survive by living and working in family units within the broader Amish community. Barns are built in a matter of days. Food is grown, animals are cared for, and whole towns thrive because of the commitment each family has to each other. Everyone knows everybody else; there are even Amish directories which allow Amish populations in Ohio to connect with those in Pennsylvania and those in Florida and so on.
Pretty amazing for people who don’t use electricity and don’t usually travel farther than a horse and buggy can carry them….
Children work alongside their parents, learning from an early age the hardships of living off the land and of practicing a quiet life in a world that seems to run circles around them. Their homes and clothes are simple but functional. Weddings are usually arranged in one form or another and most men farm or work trades while the women care for the home and the children. Whenever there is a family in need, the others rally around them to offer support.
Funerals are also a community oriented event. Like a traditional Christian funeral, the Amish funeral is a social affair. The generations come together to pay their respects to the deceased and to share a meal. At a typical funeral there may be over 300 people in attendance. There is a sermon and perhaps some singing or reading of psalms and then the body is buried in a simple cemetery. Amish coffins are almost always handmade by family or friends, and in larger communities, by a skilled carpenter. Bodies are typically embalmed by a local funeral home, dressed in simple white garments (which are a stark contrast to the darker colors worn day to day), and brought home to the barn or house for a few days of viewing until time for burial in a hand-dug grave. Children, parents, grandparents and the entire extended family walk the road of grief together; a road which includes caring for the deceased’s family by bringing food and taking on household duties for a time in a way to help bring new life to the home. It helps that the Amish are known for their food, perhaps more accurately, their pies…
1 cup seeded raisins, washed, 2 cups water, 1½ cups sugar, 4 tablespoons flour, 1 egg, well beaten, juice of a lemon, 2 teaspoons grated lemon rind, pinch of salt. Soak raisins 3 hours, mix sugar, flour and egg. Then add seasoning, raisins and liquid. Cook over hot water for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. When the mixture is cool, empty into a pie-dough lined pie plate. Cover pie with narrow strips of dough, criss-crossed and bake until browned.
A few weeks ago I watched some children at a funeral I was working, and it occurred to me how rarely I actually see children at funerals. Every once in a while there are mothers with young babies or children as part of the family of the deceased, but unless it is a tragic death of a child, school-age children hardly ever attend funerals. Then it dawned on me….this is not the case for the Amish. Amish children grow up around death–they have a unique perspective with so many farm animals around them which must die to be food for the family or which die from natural causes or even more brutal ways such as by being attacked by other animals. Death is simply part of the circle of life to them, and like many of us have heard our grandparents or parents tell stories of eating a pet chicken or cow, it is something they experience on a daily basis in a way that most American children these days don’t.
The particular children I was watching at the funeral were staring not so subtly over the back of their pew at a lady who was crying. She was sitting alone and had just returned from viewing the body at the front of the sanctuary. She was quietly crying and wasn’t aware the children were even looking in her direction. After a few minutes, she stopped wiping her eyes and the children went back to playing and coloring in their pew.
Who knows?… It may have been one of their first encounters with death. It may have been their first time to see a dead body. And it may have been one of their first experiences of grief. It had me thinking about how those “first” experiences are so formative for us in the way we view death and grief, and in turn, life. It seems to me that a healthy perspective is developed within the context of community and discussion and open dialogue about the realities of this fallen world and our place in it.
When a pet dies, what do we do? When a loved one dies, what do we say? When we pass by an accident on the road, and the children have questions about the ambulance and the flashing lights and if somebody died, do we temper our answers?
It’s not an easy topic to broach, but it is a necessary one.
Do you remember your first encounter(s) with death? How have the circumstances, conversations and feelings surrounding those moments affected your current perspective?
Have you ever had a good funeral pie?