Funeral customs of the Mennonites throughout the centuries have not yet been studied. The following are some observations pertaining to the Mennonites of Prusso-Russian background. In the days of persecution and martyrdom the experiences, faith, steadfastness, and suffering of the Anabaptists were recorded in the form of poems which found their way into early hymnals. To what extent this practice was connected with that of recording the life work and faith of outstanding leaders in a poem written at the close of a life and sung as a hymn at the funeral, has not been established. However, this was an early practice among the Dutch and Prussian Mennonites. A biographical sketch of Giesbrecht Franssen was narrated in a song at the close of his life and was printed in the Jacob Jacobsz Liedeboek in 1604.
H. G. Mannhardt made some relevant observations on the funeral customs of the Mennonites of Prussia and Danzig. He believes that they did not use their churches for funeral services, but met in homes; and that funeral sermons were not preached before the beginning of the 19th century, the service consisting rather in singing a song composed for the occasion by a friend or relative. The Danzig Mennonite Church had a number of Dutch and German songs written for such occasions in the 18th century. Thus at Elder Dirk Jantzen's death Gergen Berentz wrote "Een Lied over het afsterven van den lieven Oudsten Dirk Jantzen" consisting of 28 stanzas, the singing of which could have consumed as much time as a funeral sermon. Hans van Steen, Jr., wrote a funeral song of 14 stanzas for Elder Hans von Allmonde, who died 1753. For Hans von Steen's funeral Jan Lambertz wrote a song of 16 stanzas. At the death of Elder Hans von Steen in 1781, one of the first funeral songs in the German language was used, written by Hans Momber and consisting of 24 stanzas.
This tradition continued in modified form among the Prussian Mennonites up to World War II. Well-known hymns were printed especially for the occasion. Numerous copies have been preserved. The congregations also printed smaller song books for special occasions, such as Sammlung Christlicher Verlobungs-, Trauungs-, Jubiläums- und Begräbnis-Gesänge (Ebing, 1908) and Christliche Trauungs und Begräbniss-Gesänge . . . , the fourth edition of which appeared at Danzig in 1858. Judging by the fact that non-Mennonite prayer books and liturgical aids have been preserved in Mennonite homes, it may be assumed that they were used occasionally in times of bereavement.
The modified form in which the practice of composing a hymn or poem at the time of death continued among the Prussian Mennonites up to recent times was known as Grabschrift and consisted of a poem. Mannhardt presents some of them in his book Die Danziger Mennonitengemeinde (p. 116). The Prussian Mennonites had a special church office for the purpose of announcing and inviting relatives and friends for funerals, weddings, etc., and the person in charge of this office was called the Umbitter. This office gradually disappeared during the 19th century. The various editions of the Mennonite ministers' manuals in Germany, Holland, and America made provision for the use of certain forms in conducting a funeral service. -- CK
Sixteenth-century martyrdom scenes and moments of courageous witnessing to the faith in the presence of death, may be said to be the first Anabaptist-Mennonite funerals. Narratives and songs have memorialized these events in the Martyrs Mirror, the Ausbund, and Mennonite hymnals. Mennonite funerals of later centuries, until the 19th century, are recalled only anecdotally, however singing, rejoicing, and witnessing to the faith, in the home and at the cemetery, remained central features.
In the Dutch-Prussian-Russian Mennonite tradition, singing, meditations, and eulogizing the deceased were the core elements of the service. Special memorial songs for the deceased carried over into the Grabschrift, lengthy verses on the tombstones, a tradition continued on some North American gravestones. Services by congregation members and friends at the home and cemetery services appear to have been the most common features of Mennonite funerals in the European setting. These funerary customs persisted in the North American setting, but took on Victorian trimmings. In a late 19th century Mennonite hymnal (Gesangbuch mit Noten), the section "Of final things" contained 74 hymns, many, in keeping with Victorian perspectives in British and American culture, glorifying death as a victory over this sinful life, and gilding the rewards of the afterlife.
The commercialization of the funeral, the sale of the coffin, and the practice of embalming the body, and all this under the direction of the professional mortician, have transformed Mennonite funeral customs in North America in the 20th century. Embalming, which was not practiced by Mennonites and most Western Europeans until the 20th century reflected a growing this-worldliness. Embalming was later accompanied by the use of air-tight vaults, ostensibly to prevent decomposition of the body. With the exception of the Amish and Old Order Mennonites, who continued to practice plain funerals in the home and cemetery to the degree permitted by government health regulations, other Mennonites moved to the mortician-organized funeral, held in the mortician's chapel, the church, and the cemetery. This emphasis on the physical preservation and display of the deceased brought costs per funeral into the thousands of dollars, and made the funeral business very lucrative. By the mid-1970s, however, a reaction had set in against the alienation of death from the family and congregation. In some circles, there was a re-emphasis on plain values: home-made coffins, services in the home or in church, memorial services, and a de-emphasis on the material body in favor of the spiritual eternity of the believer.
Non-Western Mennonite funeral practices reflect an emphasis on the believers and family gathered for singing, pastoral meditations, and common grieving and rejoicing in faith. In India, Mennonites hold short funeral services in the home and the church. In the absence of undertakers and embalming, family and friends handle all aspects of the funeral. At the graveside service, each individual puts three handfuls of dirt onto the coffin before it is covered. In rural circles, there is sometimes a tendency for the cemetery portion of the funeral to be attended mostly by men, reminiscent of Hindu cremation, which is handled exclusively by men. In Central Africa, the all-night wake at the homes of the deceased's family, an important part of indigenous funerals, is also held by Mennonite and other Christians of the southern savanna (e.g., Zaire). However, the mourning and wailing that accompanies these funerals is replaced, in the Christian community, by hymn singing and pastoral meditations. Food is often brought by friends and church members.
In Indonesia, differing funerary patterns reflect the distinction between United Muria Synod (Persatuan Gereja-Gereja Kristen Muria) and the Javanese conference (Gereja Injili di Tanah Jawa). In the Muria Synod, after a short service with church members praying for the steadfastness of the family's faith, the deceased's body is washed and clothed (not embalmed), and kept in the hospital or home awaiting the final rites. When the family has gathered, often several days later, a service is again held preparatory to the procession to the cemetery. In families with strong adherence to Chinese custom, generational rank may be marked by the wearing of differing colored bands over white clothing. At the cemetery a more evangelical service is held, to witness to Muslims and Confucians present the Christian attitude toward death, before the coffin is let down and "dust is returned to dust" (Ecclesiastes 3:20). In the Javanese setting, burial follows quickly after death, with a prayer meeting at the home of the deceased to offer courage to the family. Grieving and commemoration continues. The third day after burial there is a gathering at the home for prayer. Again, at intervals of 40, 100, and 1,000 days after the death, similar commemorative gatherings are held, reminiscent of the Javanese Slametan festival for this purpose. -- JMJ
See also Burial customs.
Descriptions of practices in India, Africa and Indonesia are based on information supplied by Lubin Jantzen, Fremont Regier, and Mesach Krisetiya.
Handbuch zum Gebrauch bei gottesdienstlichen Handlungen zunächst für die Aeltesten und Prediger der Mennoniten-Gemeinden in Nord-Amerika. Berne, IN, 1921.
Kanselboek ten Dienste van de Doopsgezinde Gemeenten in Nederland.
Kauffman, R. C. "Our 'Christian' Funerals." Mennonite Life 3 (July 1947).
Mannhardt, H. G. Die Danziger Mennonitengemeinde. Danzig, 1919.
The Minister's Manual. Newton, 1950.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol 2, pp. 419-420; v. 5, p. 320. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
©1996-2013 by the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. All rights reserved.
MLA style: Krahn, Cornelius and John M. Janzen. "Funerals." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 18 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/F853ME.html.
APA style: Krahn, Cornelius and John M. Janzen. (1989). Funerals. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 18 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/F853ME.html.