My aunt’s body arrives at the churchyard in a two-horse-drawn hearse. Mourners gather outside the white clapboard church, men on the right side, women on the left. Hushed greetings and stoic expressions of sympathy float between them, followed by a holy kiss. Reverence stills the crowd as the hearse halts. The well-trained horses stand at attention, honoring the presence of grief. Pallbearers remove the plain wooden coffin from the the hearse and carry Mom’s sister into the building.
As immediate family, we follow the procession in our horse-drawn buggy. Men move the horses to hitching rails so we can file into the church behind the casket. An unspoken but instinctual order follows as those closest to her fall in line behind the pallbearers, ranking by age and family.
Sturdy heels of plain black shoes clank on the worn wooden floor. Brimmed black hats and Sunday bonnets line two rows of hooks on bare white walls. Slatted wooden pews leave just enough of a crack to entertain tiny fingers poking through. There is no electricity and the church is dim with natural light from many large windows that surround the building.
Several ministers, all men, file into the pulpit bench. One stands to greet us and selects a song number from a small black book. A man from the congregation starts singing and soon the meetinghouse is filled with mournful four-part harmony.
A minister calls us to prayer and a whoosh follows as the entire gathered body turns in the benches and kneels. As he prays, my senses are overcome with the smells of mothballs, sweaty horses, leather, and a spring bloom I can’t identify. He ends with the Lord’s Prayer, there’s another whoosh, and in one motion we are upright on the benches again.
The ministers take turns reminding us of our vaporous lives, calling us to repent and believe so that we might one day join the “disembodied saints” in heaven, warning us we will enter the realm of the eternally damned if we refuse. We occasionally wipe tears from the corners of our eyes and blow our noses softly into embroidered white hankies. Sobbing and weeping are reserved for private grieving.
After a final song and prayer, we file past the open coffin for one last viewing. Mothers and fathers pick up those too small to see, so that even the youngest become accustomed to the rhythm of life and death.
Years later we attend the funeral of another aunt, this time my dad’s sister. Mom was one of the few Old Order Mennonites who married outside of the congregation. Daddy’s dad escaped Russia as a young boy, and his grandmother emigrated from Hungary. My paternal grandparents were bar owners, and coal miners, Grandpap Cyzick was Russian Orthodox, but research suggests his family was Jewish in the old country. Grandma was Roman Catholic. They baptized every other of their six children into alternating religions, but raised them Roman Catholic. Daddy, the youngest of the six, was baptized Russian Orthodox and converted to the Mennonite faith as a young man. During the draft for Vietnam, he was assigned to Ephrata Community Hospital in PA for alternative service, one of the options given conscientious objectors. His host family was Mom’s aunt and uncle. Although Daddy was immersed in the Mennonite faith when he and Mom met, their marriage was a collision of cultures.
The funeral parlor fills with family and a few close friends. My aunt lies in her casket with a rosary made from Mardi Gras beads and a miniature Coca Cola bottle, indicative of her full, vivacious life. Just a few days before, she gave me several bags of those beads to distribute among my brothers and sisters upon her death.
We weep and laugh openly as the time of her service approaches. She specifically requested Mom and I sing, “Wind Beneath my Wings,” but her daughter also wants to play a tribute through the sound system. The CD skips and refuses to play. Everyone laughs out loud, commenting that even in death Aunt Nellie will have her way.
I come from a large family and have attended more funerals than I can count. Some of my earliest childhood memories are standing at the graveside of a loved one singing with the congregation as family and friends shovel dirt onto the coffin. My Old Order Mennonite faith never shielded me from death, instilling at an early age that we are “strangers and pilgrims passing through this earth,” and that our true citizenship and longing is heaven. That consolation buoyed me through many losses; I never dreamed it would evaporate when my daughter died.