To bury the dead is a Christian custom, adopted from the Jews. Non Judeo-Christian religions usually cremated their dead. In the New Testament two burials are recorded. Ananias and Sapphira were carried to their grave by young members of the church (Acts 5:10), and Stephen (Acts 8:2) by "devout men."
In the earliest Christian church burial was already a congregational affair. Tertullian and other church fathers relate that the churches took care of the burial of their poor, and that they had common burying grounds. The entire congregation participated in the religious rite. This participation was based on a regard for the body as the "organ of the spirit," and on the belief in the resurrection. Funeral sermons in the modern sense were unknown. The funeral procession, which took place by day, was to express the joy in overcoming death. The custom of throwing three shovelfuls of earth originated in the Middle Ages. The dedication of the corpse came at a much later period.
By the mid-20th century cremation had been widely accepted, though the Catholic Church did not accept it and its priests were forbidden any participation in the procedure. In most Protestant churches it became optional; ministers could take partial or complete charge of cremation. Among European Mennonites it was also occasionally practiced, especially in the city churches; many country churches opposed it.
Practices in Europe
From the beginning the Mennonites have buried their dead in accordance with local custom, and in common cemeteries. Several exceptions to this custom have been noted. Emil Egli (Die Züricher Täufer, 37) related that a Michel Meier helped his brother bury his wife in a meadow. Ernst Muller (Berner Täufer, 62) states that he heard a Mennonite in the Jura say they should not be compelled to bury their dead in the churchyard, but that each should be permitted to bury his dead on his own land. P. Burckhardt (Die Basler Täufer, 64) reports that the Mennonites preferred to bury their dead in a place of their own choosing. All of these are no doubt isolated cases. Where European Mennonites decided to lay out their own cemetery it was as a rule because the use of the common community burying ground was denied them or made very difficult. This is probably the reason for Preacher Risser's note in the church book of the Mennonites of Sembach: "Wherever several Mennonite families lived in a community, they had their own burial grounds." When the Mennonites buried their dead in common burying grounds, whether for Protestants or for all Christian creeds, their preachers delivered a sermon and at the conclusion thanked the authorities for the privilege of using the cemetery. (See "Friedhof" in Gem.-Kal. 1892, 93.)
In 1541 the preachers Cantzenius and Erasmus submitted to the city council of Bern their opinion that it seemed doubtful to them, whether the Anabaptists who die in their error are saved, and whether they should not be separated in burial from other, ordinary Christians, as they (the Anabaptists) have separated themselves in life; whereupon the council replied that "they, the councilors, did not wish to interfere with God's judgment regarding the salvation of Anabaptists. Error is not always damned; we do not wish to separate their corpses from other believers, since other evil persons who are executed for their crimes, are buried at the upper almshouse" (Muller, Berner Täufer, 82 f.).
On 5 June 1694 the council of Bern was again occupied with the question whether Mennonites should be buried in the churchyards with other Christians. "Honorable persons" had taken offense. The council answered that the right of burial could not be refused them, but that in the future their burials should be conducted without a funeral procession. But in the next year (27 February 1695) instructions were issued to officials that "Mennonites as excommunicated persons shall not be buried in a churchyard or other customary burying ground." In 1729 the Täuferkammer was asked for an opinion; it was divided. Some favored retaining the regulation of 1695, "because the plain man considers burial in a churchyard very important, and many might be frightened away from joining a sect which, as they can see, is segregated from the rest even after death." The others did not consider them less Christian than the Christian-minded, who were not denied the churchyard. Presumably the regulation of 1695 remained in force. In 1729 the cabinetmaker Lerch was compelled by the magistrate to bury his Mennonite sister in a remote spot on his little farm.
Concerning Holland there is not much to report. When the period of persecution was over in Holland, the Mennonites were buried in the customary manner; i.e., the more important ones in the Reformed churches, e.g., Hans de Ries in the Grootekerk at Alkmaar in 1638, and the plain people in the cemeteries. It was done in this way until burial in the churches was forbidden. The Mennonites of Holland have never had their own cemeteries. During the 16th, 17th, and part of the 18th centuries no mourning service was held. The preachers were usually not present at the burial: the poor of the congregation (the so-called gealimenteerden) and those who had few or no relatives were conducted to the grave by the deacons. Only in the 19th century did the Mennonites adopt the practice of the Reformed Church, of having the pastor conduct the entire funeral service and give a talk at the home of the deceased or at the graveside. In the first half of the 20th century it became more and more customary in the rural congregations to hold a funeral service in the church before interment.
In the Palatinate the Mennonites followed the same burial customs as the Lutherans and Reformed. They buried their dead unhesitatingly in the churchyard. The bells were rung, the school children accompanied the funeral train with singing, the Lutheran or Reformed parson gave the funeral address, or in his absence, the teacher read it. It continued so for 50 years after their settling there in 1664. On 6 July 1714 the Catholic priest of Spiesheim near Alzey complained that an "Anabaptist by the name of Hahn delivered a public funeral sermon in the churchyard," and requested a suppression of this "offense." Hahn was fined 10 Reichstalers, and the Mennonites were no longer permitted to bury their dead in the cemeteries of the three tolerated creeds (Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed), nor to hold public burial speeches. A petition of the Mennonites of October 1714 brought about the regulation that the Mennonites could be buried in the cemeteries of the three tolerated religions, but only in special parts reserved for them, isolated from the others. On 31 May 1743 an electoral decree went to all the Oberämter that Mennonites could now be buried quietly, without public singing or other show. A Mennonite request of 27 February 1746 was refused; it was decided that they could in no case be buried in a cemetery used by the Catholics. In Kaiserslautern a revolting incident occurred in 1780; a Mennonite woman who had been buried in a Catholic cemetery with church honors, was exhumed and at night buried outside the cemetery walls. In 1785 the Protestant and Catholic parsons in Winnweiler quarreled about Mennonite burial fees, which the Catholic priest claimed for himself. It was settled by giving each a part (Kirchenbuch der Mennoniten-Gemeinde Sembach).
The 19th century brought toleration on this point to the Mennonites in Bavaria. A government rescript of 1 November 1807 stated "in answer to the petition of N., the tenant of the N-hof near N, and the other Mennonites living there, asking that burial of their members be permitted according to their custom, without calling in a Catholic priest for a fee, considering that Catholic ceremonies at the burial of a non-Catholic constitute a presumption contrary to freedom of religion and conscience, and considering that the Anabaptists also are entitled to the privileges of our religious edict, we determine that the above custom be observed, and the pastors be instructed to regard it in similar cases hereafter." The government decision of 12 October 1847 again assured to the Mennonites the right of burial in the common burial grounds.
In West Prussia, where in several towns the Mennonites paid burial fees to the Protestant or Catholic parsons, some difficulties arose in the 1890s in connection with the burial of their dead. A Mennonite preacher was sued for delivering a funeral sermon in the Catholic cemetery at Marienau against the priest's express order. This was forbidden by the decree of 13 February 1852 which stated that it was permitted only to the clergy to give addresses at the grave, and forbade lay addresses. He was declared innocent by the jury and in the court of appeals at Elbing on 9 October 1898, on the ground that "the church at Rosenort had corporation rights and was an accepted religious organization, so that its preachers are clergymen in the sense of the regulation referred to, and the funeral sermon delivered by him is not to be considered a lay address."
In Baden it was long customary to have the Protestant pastors bury the Mennonite dead without the participation of their own preachers and elders. Ulrich Hege, the editor of the Gemeindeblatt, energetically and successfully protested against this practice (1896, 11). It occurred very rarely by the mid-20th century.
Practices in America
In America no difficulties in obtaining burial privileges have been experienced. The Amish who had no church buildings often had family cemeteries on their farms. In Holmes County, Ohio, the Old Order Amish followed this practice until the mid-20th century. In later years it has become customary, however, to have congregational burial sites.
In one of the Amish cemeteries near Arthur, IL the dead are buried in rows in the order of their death, without regard for family connections. The Moravians also have this practice.
In the early Mennonite settlements in America, generally as soon as church sites were obtained, burial plots were procured also. Most Mennonite congregations in the United States and Canada now have their own cemeteries, generally near the church and often on adjacent grounds. Those Mennonites, however, who came to the Americas from Russia in the 1870's and later and settled in villages did not always establish congregational but sometimes community cemeteries. This practice is followed in Mexico and Paraguay.
In the mid-20th century in congregational cemeteries, burial rights were generally open to any family in the community, with no charge made for burial privileges. At the time of the first death in a family a plot in the church cemetery was selected by the family and the sexton, which area was then reserved for that family. This plan was not always followed, however, as is illustrated by the Mennonite cemetery near Donnellson, Iowa, where for many years the dead were buried in rows in the order of their death. Not all American Mennonite congregations have their own cemeteries, for in certain communities several churches may use a common burial ground, while in other communities, Mennonites patronize city or public cemeteries.
There does not appear to be an Anabaptist and Mennonite standard for burial. As with some other areas of life, Mennonite patterns for the handling of the physical remains of the deceased reflect wider cultural practices and responses to laws or historic settings. The most common Mennonite burial forms, worldwide, articulate the kin group or family, town or community of residence, and congregational affiliation.
In Europe during 16th century, Anabaptists buried their dead in public or church cemeteries. Where possible, this continued. The break with the state church and banning of Anabaptists from public roles, meant that they were sometimes refused burial in public cemeteries. In Switzerland some Anabaptists are reported to have been buried in places reserved for criminals and non-Christians. The unbaptized deceased children of Mennonites were sometimes buried separately, or in special sections of common cemeteries. Where Mennonites developed their own settlements and congregations in the mountains of Switzerland, the Palatinate, and the Vistula Delta (West Prussia), they had their own cemeteries and burial practices.
As distinctive traditions emerged among those Mennonites who had emigrated from their original 16th-century homes and cities, family, village, and congregational burial arrangements became the most common.
A study in central Kansas (Janzen) identified the burial patterns of linked Old and New World Mennonite traditions: the Amish of Eastern United States and Swiss-Alsatian-Palatinate origin; the Swiss-Volhynian, i.e., "Old World" Amish, who emigrated to Kansas in 1874 via Poland; Dutch-Prussian-German immigrants with ancestry in the Vistula Delta "Old Flemish" congregation of Prezchowka (later, in Molotschna, Alexanderwohl).
The Amish practice congregational and community burial with patrilineal family rows, based on order of death of family members. Some conjugal pairs are recognized in that a place is reserved for the spouse beside the deceased, usually within the man's family row. An emphasis on Amish "plainness" is clearly evident in burial, with the use of wooden coffins, the absence of embalming, and uniform, simple, hand-cut limestone or concrete markers with name and birth/death dates.
In the Swiss-Volhynian congregations of Hopefield and Eden, burial reflects age-grading within the congregation. Adults and children are buried in adjacent rows, in order of death within the congregation, regardless of family membership. Conjugal pairs are recognized by reserving a burial place beside the first-deceased spouse. A variety of commercial tomb markers are used, with the largest identifying community leaders.
Low-German-speaking immigrants from the Molotschna colony brought their village settlement system to the North American plains. At first, as in the Ukraine, each village had its own cemetery, although some families buried in family plots. The village cemeteries of Alexanderwohl tended to practice age-segregated burial, as the Swiss Volhynian above, with children's rows and adult rows, within patrilineal family plots. Later, when the villages were dissolved, and the people began to bury in congregational cemeteries, they practiced an egalitarian pattern of burial, filling row after row without distinction for age or family. Only the conjugal unit was recognized, by leaving room for the spouse beside the deceased.
In the Prussian-German tradition, both congregational and patrilineal family lines were articulated in burial, as had been the case in Heubuden's cemetery in the Vistula Delta. The burial practices of Emmaus and Zion congregations were based on family plots demarcated within the cemetery. The historic practice of cousin marriage between landed families in this tradition—in the face of restrictive land-owning conditions imposed by the Prussian military state—carried over in a few cases into the New World, and was reflected in partner-family sections in congregational cemeteries, or in private family cemeteries such as the Bergman-Harder cemetery of rural Whitewater. Here a variety of commercial tombstones was used, with some reflecting the Grabschrift song and verse tradition of Europe (funerals). An urban congregation in this tradition utilized a city public cemetery.
Non-Western Mennonites have utilized a combination of wider cultural practices and more self-consciously "Christian" burial forms. In India, Christians, as well as Muslims, practice burial, in contrast to the Hindu practice of cremation. Indian Mennonites of Madhya Pradesh utilize a congregational cemetery; the separate identity of the family is minimal. In the Congo Mennonite Church, located mainly in Kasai and Bandundu provinces, burial is either in the village, lineage, or family plot, or in the church cemeteries found on some of the mission stations.
Indonesian Mennonites, whose origins go back to Dutch Mennonite missions of 1850, are drawn from both Chinese and Javanese ethnic groups. Both practice burial in public Christian cemeteries following services in the home with family and friends. The conjugal unit is acknowledged by reserving a place for the spouse beside the first-deceased. The tomb is marked with a simple marble tablet. Because of limited space for cemeteries, and cost of burial, cremation has been approved by the Persatuan Gereja-Gereja Kristen Muria (United Muria Indonesia Christian Church, largely drawn from ethnic Chinese).
See also Death and Dying
Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe; Schneider, 1913-1967: v. I, 154-157.
Janzen, John M. "The Early Midwestern [US] Mennonite Cemetery as a Social Document." Yearbook of the American Philosophical Society (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1968): 605-607.
Information on Indian, Congolese, and Indonesian Mennonites supplied by Lubin Janzen, Fremont Regier, and Mesach Krisetiya.
Smith, C. Henry. The Mennonite Immigration to Pennsylvania in the Eighteenth Century. Norristown, PA, 1929: 49-54.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 473-475; v. 5, pp. 110-111. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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To cite this page:
MLA style: Neff, Christian, Melvin Gingerich and John M. Janzen. "Burial customs." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1988. Web. 19 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/B8485.html.
APA style: Neff, Christian, Melvin Gingerich and John M. Janzen. (1988). Burial customs. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 19 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/B8485.html.