As Mennonites, we seem to have a complicated relationship to the dead. Officially, we, as Brüderthaler, seem to have a belief against honoring the dead. Interestingly, my grandmother reiterated this when I questioned whether or not she wanted to view Grandfather’s grave in the country churchyard. “No,” she replied, “he is not there – that does nothing to remind me of him.”
This is despite the fact that she often joins her non-Mennonite family in recognizing their duty to decorate and clean the graves of her non-Mennonite family located in the city cemetery an hour away.
Half-Swedish, I also belong to a Scandinavian culture that has often historically blurred the lines separating the living from the dead -- the paradoxical personal resolution of the opposing cultural beliefs that I have had no problem resolving in favor of the Swedes.
The theory behind the Brüderthaler tradition is that in the graveyard, we have merely buried a husk and that the essence of the person is now in Heaven with the Heavenly Father. If we want to speak to them or miss them, the appropriate response is to not waste one’s time in an empty graveyard, but instead to live a Holy life so that we too might join them in paradise. The bodies are of no account, merely resting in storage, carefully arranged so that they will raise facing Jerusalem (east) when they are called for at the end times Resurrection.
Despite many written arguments to the contrary, I have found actually no beliefs as to whether or not the Christian is sleeping until Resurrection, or if the spirit is sitting comfortable in the presence of Christ until that time to be both inconsistent and contradictory. Hymns and poems about being awakened from a spiritual slumber at the call of the trumpet conflict with comforting words that your loved one is “now with the Lord,” and that you need not be lonely for, “the he (or she) is up there looking down right now, waiting for the time when you can again be together.”
The governing church documents are if anything, a bit more confusing with the Mennonite Brethren seeming to understand Heaven as a pre-rapture waiting room for disembodied spirits … “Since Christ destroyed the power of death by His resurrection, believers need not be afraid of death, the last enemy. Christ’s followers go to be with the Lord when they die. When Christ returns they will be raised and receive new bodies. Believers who are alive at Christ’s coming will be transformed and will also receive new and glorious bodies, fit for life in God’s eternal kingdom,” (Mennonite Brethren Confession of Faith, p. 14). The EMB-FEBC are less explicit, “We believe every person will be raised bodily from the dead, the believers to eternal life, the unbelievers to eternal separation from God (John 5:28, 29),” (Fellowship of Evangelical Bible Churches (2009), p. 7).
From childhood conversations regarding the end times, I would easily believe that this reflects less a divergence of theology between the two denominations, but rather the greater capacity for diversity in Biblical understanding amongst the Brüderthaler. In fact, my understanding would be that there is probably a recognized disagreement between the two camps (souls aware and waiting in Heaven, vs. souls and bodies resting in anticipation of the Resurrection), and that the lack of clarity in the Brüderthaler Confession is on purpose to prevent disagreement over a theological issue whose resolution bears little impact on church governance or the Spiritual Walk of the individual believer.
Back to the Swedes, the tradition that we inherited from my mother’s people is that one might go to the gravesite of a loved one to remember them, and that while it matters not where you are at, it is perfectly natural to speak as if to them -- all as a way of mourning and handling the personal effects of the loss. It is ok if not expected to go to the gravesite and cry. In her journals, my Swedish great grandmother records laying flowers at her mother’s grave and crying. The real difference with the Mennonites being that the Swedes consider it fine to “miss” your loved one, and to feel pain at the separation, in other words, it is right and expected for one to mourn.
Arriving at the farmstead just after my mother was unexpectedly killed in a car wreck, I observed the grieving process in my father -- for one day he came apart. By the time of the funeral, he asked me to sneak him in through the back -- he did not want to deal with the people and was ashamed to be seen mourning. For two months he railed against the church privately for not allowing him to mourn. “Of course, I know that she is with the Lord, but that doesn’t mean I don’t miss her and want her here,” he would state, and, “They don’t know anything about this -- it’s easy for them to say that you shouldn’t be sad and that you should be happy that she is safe in Heaven. Sometimes I just want to get up and walk out.” For a time, he actually did consider leaving the church in order to find a congregation that could more effectively help in with his grief and allow him to mourn. Days were spent working, at night he would sit with the box of condolence cards on his lap, reading them over and over.
In her essay entitled Grief (2005), Heidi Burns shared similar sentiments to those of my father, “We return to the church for cookies and coffee. Who can eat cookies and coffee after staring at a mound of dirt unless it means nothing? I chew my cookie. It tastes like fresh dirt. More hugs, more offers of help. Empty hollow expressions of condolence. Some avoid me, not knowing what to say. Others offer “I’m sorry” leaving me wondering what to say. What do you say? Thanks? I’m really glad that you’re sorry my mom is dead? I shake my head. They do not understand. Their words echo through my mind as I walk away. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” There is burning pain in my head. I wish all these people would just go away. I am surrounded and yet alone,” (Burns, 2005).
My dad stayed with the church -- they found a way to help him deal with his grief. Within a year the Church settled two major problems by marrying off the grieving widower to the only single woman in the congregation, a divorcee. He needed comforting, and she needed a husband. Match made in Heaven, or at least, in a church. Problem solved. A year later, we were all shocked at the changes in the two of them. Dad looked happy and was smiling. His new wife -- she had gotten her ears pierced and was wearing earrings like our mother. She had changed her hair -- the colour and cut of our mother. “Your father took me into town one day and we had the same woman who used to cut your mother’s hair cut mine,” she confided proudly. I believe that Hitchcock’s takes on a similar moment is his film, Rebecca. “Glad to see that Dad is dealing,” one of my sisters commented somewhat dryly.
Sitting in front of the church after my grandfather’s funeral a scant few years later, we were busy taking family photos. I remember thinking how odd it all was -- every few years we get together to take a few photos, but have little to do with each other otherwise. Yet, it was very important that at my grandfather’s funeral everyone be present to represent a complete family in a picture. Smile everybody! I left to go outside. The funeral director had returned to lower the casket into the ground.
“Can I do anything to help?” I walked over to ask.
“No, that’s ok. We’ve got it handled.”
“Please, I’d like to help.”
“Fine -- can you throw those straps over?”
While everyone else was inside smiling for photos and enjoying fastpa, it was just I and the funeral director’s staff lowering the casket into the ground and sealing the vault -- an activity much more meaningful to me than getting a few photos.
“Steve, you should come in with everyone else,” a Trustee had been sent out to get me. “They are all inside.”
“He’s fine -- he’s helping,” the director assured him.
The Swedish side of my family lays flowers at the grave every time they visit the home village in Stora Tuna. It was amazingly helpful and meaningful to me to make sure that several of the family’s symbolic roses (yellow) were interred in the vault with Grandpa. There was no need to cry, but it was incredibly meaningful to be involved with the actual interment -- I was taking care of our own -- the member of Grandpa’s family staying there to see things through. Yet, the church had sent a trustee out to retrieve me -- to keep me from interfering. “Your grandfather is dead, leave it be and get on with things.”
When I returned, my grandmother was sitting up front with her great grandchildren. I went and stood behind her. She grabbed my hand, “They said you were outside?”
“Yes, I was helping them, is that ok?”
Instead of answering she gave me one of habitual quick smiles and squinted her eyes, giving my hand a quick double-squeeze.
“What did you think about the funeral?” I asked her.
“Oh I don’t know -- all this,” she shrugged and half turned to look at me, “This really didn’t seem like Grandpa,” she said. “I really wish they would have sung some German -- he would have really liked that. Grandpa always liked it when we would sing German.”
“You should have asked them to. I’m sure they would have.”
“No one asked me anything about this,” she replied, “but you think someone would have thought of it. Oh well, it doesn’t matter now, does it.”
Later, like my father, and like so many others, Grandma would remark that she knows Grandpa is in Heaven, but sometimes she still misses him, or turns to talk to him only to find that he isn’t there. Too often, she was alone in her apartment, “I was just hoping someone would call,” she would tell me. “It is just too quiet around here with no one around.” Admitting that others had been in town to visit and check in on her, she would nonetheless indicate, “but sometimes it’s just nice to talk about him and remember him.”
The Mennonite tradition seems to address the vacant absence with silence. A distance is created that becomes self-reinforcing -- not only stifling grief and mourning, but also displays of joy and happiness. “The beloved is in Heaven, get over it!”
Burns remarks on her Mennonite family, “My family struggles to stay together, to not fight, to not fall apart. We each deal in our own ways, in our own silence. We try to talk about it, to comfort each other, but we are private. We do not know how to share our pain. We do not cry together. We laugh together. We remember Mom when we are together. We tell stories [take photographs]. We silently entreat each other to not be sad. We do not whisper, “I miss her too,” in the stillness of the moment. We may reach out and touch a shoulder, but we do not grieve together. We do not know how. So instead, we dance around our loss. We acknowledge she is gone and then move on with life as before. But it is not as before. Grief has made us strangers,” (Burns, 2005).
What is this need to ignore the deceased? Mourning, remembering, giving voice to our frustrations at their absence -- what is so wrong with this? None of these activities deny the beloved’s position in Heaven or the hope in Resurrection. Why do we bother with the service if the whole point is to dump the body and forget? Why do we spend so much effort burying them and elaborately marking the grave if it is of no value to us apart from a storage area?
Evidence from the Scripture is not terribly useful. We know that the Marys went to Christ’s sepulcher in mourning with the intent to minister to the body. The Jerusalem church itself was gathered together in fear and in mourning to mutually assist and support each other.
In her essay, Burns would seem to support the church’s admonition to forget the grave as meaningless, “I stare at the mound of freshly turned dirt. That is my mom. I do not believe she is down there. I stare at the nameplate…That is my mom’s name, but where is she? I begin to sob. The cloudy sky and the bitter wind tear into my skin, but I do not feel it. I do not feel anything. The loose dirt means nothing to me. It is not my mom. My mom is dead, but she is not in the mound of dirt. Why am I sobbing? How can I cry for a mound of nothing?” (Burns, 2005). But, Burns closes admitting that she has not found closure, “My heart is broken. It might be mended by time, but then maybe it won’t. Perhaps one day I will breathe again freely. Perhaps I will always feel the suffocating weight of grief on my shoulders. I will always miss her. She is my mother,” (Burns, 2005).
I admit, I still bear some ill will towards my parents’ pastor. Every funeral he leads has some time for remembrance but every homily is the same – “So-and-so died a member of Christ’s family and is in Heaven. How do we know this? He/She shared in the assurance of Salvation… If you do not share in this assurance, let me explain the path of Salvation to you…”
Where is the outreach to the family? Does being Christian mean losing one’s compassion? Must every moment be a public testimony to others? Don’t good Christians also hurt sometimes?
Understanding that many Mennonites have traditionally worn black, does that mean that we have traditionally lacked emotion? Theileman records the martyrs’ stories as being full of emotion -- and of assurance. Albeit, if the stories are accurate, the fear, pain, and loss were often translated into a sort of spiritual ecstasy -- a spiritual shock coming across as a high sufficient to get everyone through the moment. Yet, we would be known for recording these stories and for constantly referring back to them in remembrance. While we had no graveyards or even a monument to turn to, we did in fact have the Martyr’s Mirror and the Golden Chronicle.
Today, we in fact do tour the graves in Molotschnaya and gather under the remains of the great oak tree in Chortitza. We even have a memorial to Menno Simons in Witmarsum. We use these spaces to remember and to relate.
If these actions and spaces are important for us as a people, why do we deny ourselves these same tools as individuals?