Death in Big Valley, Pennsylvania
An Interview by Ruth Tulloch, October 14, 2000

Born and raised in Belleville, Pennsylvania, in the Mennonite/Amish community known as Big Valley, Nancy, a 54-year-old, married, middle class, Licensed Practical Nurse, recounts her parent’s funerals with pleasant memories. Her parents died in 1982, three months apart. Visitation was always at the funeral home, although just this year, wakes are being held in churches once in a great while. The wake lasts one night only, the night before the funeral. The body is embalmed and presented in a casket with a one-piece lid, instead of the two piece styles used in Michigan, where Nancy now lives. There is an apparatus above the body on which a bouquet can be placed. The visitation allows for expression as felt, with crying or not crying being acceptable; wailing is not the norm. During the wake, the family and close relative may attend in the daytime, when there are periods of organized singing, with no piano accompaniment.

There are very few flowers and no memorial suggestions given as the people feel this is poor use of God’s money. However, the family is supported, encouraged, and comforted with lots of homemade food and visits.

After the evening visitation, a short service led by one of the ministers of the church takes place for the immediate family to petition God for comfort and direction for the funeral day and service.

The funeral service is held at the church and is always followed by a graveside service, unless the weather is severely inclement. If the loved ones are church members in good standing and have lived a "Christian" lifestyle, they can be buried for free in the church cemetery, which is maintained by the offerings to the church.

Headstones are placed on graves, and rarely, flowers; nothing of a personal nature is left at the grave.
Nancy states that the source of greatest comfort at loved ones' deaths is her strong religious belief of seeing them again in Heaven. Mementos of the loved one are displayed and treasured in her home, as well as pictures, dishes, and other personal items that will be passed down to grandchildren. Families continue community ties with the dead loved ones by frequently visiting the cemeteries, with the passing along of history stories to younger generations.

The Mennonites believe that if a person is not living the Christian life and attending church regularly preceding death, that person will not go to Heaven; this belief adds additional pain to the death loss. In fact, the person would not be allowed a church funeral and burial in the church cemetery.

About life after death, Nancy states, "I know there is a Heaven and I’ll see them again later. They’ll have new bodies, but they’ll be recognizable".

Regarding healthy and unhealthy grief, Nancy strongly believes that everyone grieves differently and is to be respected. She shared about a neighbor man, whose pregnant wife and little girl were killed in a car crash, not moving his wife’s sandals and pickles she was canning for 2 ½ years; Nancy placed no judgment on this action. She feels it is very unhealthy to dispose of the deceased one’s belongings right away, saying, "one needs something tangible to help with grieving". She believes one should take their time mourning and cry when needed. There is no religious prohibition against public mourning.

Group support, either provided by family, friends, or a support group, is thought to be essential by Nancy. The sharing of stories from the past continue on for years, as just this past summer, Nancy’s family reunion included reminiscences about "Mom and Dad".

 

Written for Grief in a Family Context, HPER F460/F560, Fall, 2000.

(C) 2000, Ruth Tulloch. All rights reserved. Interested parties may contact the course instructor, at gilbertk@indiana.edu.