Smaller Christian sects, including Mennonites, differ dramatically in treatment of death and dying. But most share a common core of beliefs about the afterlife and their relationship to God. Mennonites believe that the virtuous will spend eternity with a beneficent God who is an integral part of their everyday life on Earth and who rewards them for following the directives of their faith.
Menno and the Simple Life
Mennonites take their religious beliefs from Menno Simons, a Catholic priest in Holland who broke away from the church to become an Anabaptist in the 16th century. Anabaptist reform embraced a separation of church and state, and held that baptism was the validation of an adult commitment to faith, not a sacrament to cleanse original sin from the soul of a newborn. Menno preached a spare and simple life -- non-consumerist, nonviolent, service oriented and centered on the Bible. Most Mennonites in the United States today live with electricity, many drive cars and some live in large urban centers. But some Mennonites still live in farming communities much like the Amish. The Amish sect was a later reform movement of the Mennonites with stricter adherence to shunning modern technologies, educational practices and assimilation. Traditionally, however, both groups embrace similar funeral practices.
Preparation for the Funeral
When a Mennonite dies, the preparation of the body is normally handled by the family -- the deceased is washed and dressed, and may be laid out for visitation in a plain open or closed casket in the home. Family, friends and neighbors visit for one or two days, and the funeral service takes place on the third day. If the visitation has been in the home, the casket may be transported to the church in a horse-drawn hearse. The funeral procession that follows includes family and friends in either horse-drawn buggies or cars. A funeral director may help with basic arrangements such as embalming, if it is used, or reserving the church and the hearse. A Mennonite funeral is extremely simple and requires no elaborate purchases or events scheduled at a funeral parlor.
The funeral service is conducted by bishops, elders, ministers or deacons of the community, usually in the church. The service could last up to two hours, and may include spoken or sung hymns, sermons to comfort and uplift the survivors, admonitions about living according to the Bible and the tenets of the Mennonite faith, and modest expressions of respect for the departed. A Mennonite funeral will not feature a eulogy or flowers. Praise, even of the deceased, is considered vanity and flowers are thought to be too ornamental and distracting. If the body has not been embalmed, the service will be conducted with a closed casket. Afterwards, the casket is carried by pallbearers, or in the hearse, to the cemetery. Dress conservatively to show respect at a traditional Mennonite funeral -- a knee-length or longer dress with sleeves for women and a plain dark suit for men. Consider a donation to a Mennonite charity in lieu of flowers.
Burial and Community
The time-honored Mennonite cemetery burial is in a grave dug by hand. A few words or a blessing may be said over the grave, and handfuls of dirt may be tossed on the casket before the gravesite is filled in. A simple stone marker is placed over the tomb -- it is engraved with the name and birth-death dates of the deceased, but bears no biographical information, inscriptions from loved ones or scriptural quotes. Plain tombstones are used in keeping with the Mennonite belief about the virtues of humility. Most gravestones in a cemetery plot will be similar if not identical. In some graveyards, large natural stones or small boulders may be used as grave markers. Afterwards, friends, family and members of the community return to the family's house to share a meal of food prepared by other church members.
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