The funeral marks the end of an earthly journey–and (Amish hope) the beginning of new life
Amish beliefs about death
Amish tend not to dwell on the tragic aspect of death and typically take a more stoic and reserved approach. The idea that “God willed that it be so” resonates with Amish. Most Amish typically do not subscribe to the belief in assurance of salvation, so there are typically not the assertions that a deceased individual is “in a better place” that one often hears at non-Amish funerals.
The Amish more typically abide what they call a “living hope” of salvation. For children who die, however, there is a strong conviction that they are taken by God.
In either case, the emphasis is on what lies beyond. Amish hope that a life well-lived will lead to salvation in heaven. Amish tend to speak frankly about death itself, which in their large communities and agricultural setting, is experienced frequently (by both humans and animals) and is simply seen as a part of life.
At the same time, Amish certainly feel the pain of loss as any others do. Grieving takes place and Amish struggle with the same emotions anyone losing a loved one would have. After a death, Amish women typically wear black clothing as a visual indicator to the community that they have lost someone close to them. The length of time an Amish woman will wear a black garment will vary based on the closeness of the relationship.
Preparing the body for burial
When an Amish person dies, in most communities the body is taken to a funeral home for embalming. Then it is returned to the home for a viewing. Family and others in the community will visit to pay their respects.
The body is laid in a plain pine-casket of very simple design. In larger communities, an Amishman will operate a business making the plain caskets.
The Amish funeral service
Amish funerals are in most ways similar to regular church services, with attendants gathering in a home or other structure such as a shop or barn at the home place of the deceased. The deceased individual is placed in the casket, which is left open, in the center of the room, with the minister preaching just a few feet away.
As in a regular Amish church service, preachers give two sermons, one lasting approximately 20 minutes and the other around an hour. There may or may not be singing at the standard times of a church service, that is the beginning and the end. At the end of the service, attendants file past the open casket for a final look at the body, while the preacher recites the individual’s name and a prayer. Parents may lift up children to get a closer look at the deceased. The casket is closed and carried out for its journey to the cemetery.
Visiting at a funeral
After the church service, those not attending the actual burial may eat a meal with other attendants. As there may be 300, 500, or even more attendees at a funeral, food may be served cafeteria-style, rather than in individual seatings as is done at the lighter-attended church gatherings. Attendees typically visit and share as they would after any church service.
Amish may view the funeral or viewing as a social occasion as well as a time for mourning. One older attendee expressed how he was looking forward to the event. Contrary to what one might expect at a funeral, Amish may share laughter and exchange social visits before and after the service. Yet the general tone of the funeral itself is solemn as with funerals in other cultures.
The Amish cemetery
The casket may be loaded onto a specially designed hearse wagon for its final journey. In some cases, if the cemetery where the deceased is to be buried is located far away, it may be transported by car. Otherwise, Amish will follow behind in their buggies until they reach the cemetery itself.
The grave is dug and filled in by fellow Amish, and gravestones are typically plain and unadorned, usually identical. Amish are typically buried in all-Amish cemeteries, but not always. Amish may share a cemetery with Mennonites, for example.
In the Swiss Amish tradition, gravestones are made of wood and are unmarked. The wood material means they wear away over time, emphasizing the transient nature of life. The lack of a full name on the marker de-emphasizes the importance of the individual in relation to community. A special book, sometimes printed along with the Amish church directory, serves as a guide to locate an individual’s resting place.
The funeral as the end of a Christian life
Death and the funeral mark the end of a Christian life. Amish recall that individuals are sinners and at the mercy of God. Amish abide a living hope that individuals are with God in heaven, though typically don’t assert to know a soul’s final place of existence. In the large and extensive Amish community, death happens frequently, another factor that contributes to the more matter-of-fact Amish approach to dying.
For further information, see:
Good Night, My Son: A Treasure in Heaven, Esther F. Smucker
Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy, Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt, David L. Weaver-Zercher
Amish Society, John Hostetler (pp. 200-208)