Death Traditions of Different Amish Sects

by Marion J. Herbert
The Amish are followers of the traditionalist Christian Church and are renowned for their simple lifestyle.

The Amish are followers of the traditionalist Christian Church and are renowned for their simple lifestyle.

The Amish community traditionally maintains simple funerals and remembrances of the dead. While all Amish sects generally have plain, modest funerals, the traditions surrounding funerals vary depending on the Amish community and how modern or conservative they may be. The origins of the Amish settlement, as well as when the community settled, influences its beliefs surrounding the dead.

Preparation of the Body

In his article, “An Amish Mortuary Ritual,” Joshua Brown, an assistant professor of German at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, describes how most Pennsylvania Dutch Amish communities prefer to have their loved ones viewed by the community within their own homes. A room is chosen, cleaned and cleared to make room for members of the community who will be paying their respects. Death is perhaps the one time in Amish society when their bodies are not clothed in dark clothing. Those who have passed on typically wear white clothing, whether it is white pants, a vest and shirt for men, or a white dress, cape and apron for women. Unlike funerals of mainstream society, makeup is not applied.

Help from the Outside Community

Usually, the Amish community relies primarily on itself for all aspects of the funeral process. Members may build a simple coffin, help prepare a meal after the service, help hand-dig a grave or sit with the body as needed before the funeral. With the exception of strict Amish settlements, such as the Old Order Amish, most communities will reach out to a local funeral director who is familiar with Amish funerals to embalm the body. Additionally, the Amish are primarily buried in cemeteries exclusive to their community, although sometimes they will share this land with fellow Mennonites, who share many of the same historical roots and religious beliefs as the Amish, but tend to be more tolerant of technology and modern conveniences.

The Funeral Service

The focus of a funeral service is not on the death, but rather the life, of the person who has has passed away, the afterlife and praise for God. Most ceremonies are delivered in Pennsylvania Dutch, a Dutch dialect used by the Amish, and last approximately two hours. The deceased are buried three days after they pass away; this is the amount of time needed to hand-dig the grave. Mennonite communities in Big Valley Pennsylvania have one minister perform the service, and singing is now allowed. The Nebraska Amish, who are the most conservative Amish group located in Mifflin County, Pennsylvania, traditionally have a clergyman read a hymn as the body is lowered into the ground while attendees silently say the Lord’s Prayer. While gravestones are typically plain, the Swiss Amish tradition is to have gravestones made out of wood, which wears away and implies the transient nature of life.

The Noon Meal

Traditionally, funerals in the United States are followed by a meal for family and friends to gather to celebrate the life of those who have passed on. In the Amish community, the “noon meal” is intended help members of the community breathe new life into the home of the deceased. While not a lavish feast, the meal may include mashed potatoes, gravy, cold beef, cole slaw, pepper cabbage, prunes, applesauce, cheese, bread, buns and “funeral pie,” which includes raisins. The highly conservative Nebraska Amish community still participates in a practice known as rumdraage, which involves those in mourning passing around bread and wine before the body is laid to rest in the ground.

About the Author

Marion J. Herbert is an experienced writer, editor and communications professional based in the greater New York City region. She is a graduate of Marist College and has worked for "District Administration" magazine and is currently the communications manager of a large Connecticut-based nonprofit organization.

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