In the summer of 2019, Andrew and I paid a quick visit to Ontario Mennonite country for the very first time. An essential stop was the Schneider Haus Historic Site in Kitchener.
After time well spent exploring the grounds and every floor of this historic house, I was delighted to stumble into the gift shop. Of course, the books caught my eye first… particularly this book, with its cover photo of a cemetery:
Mennonite Funeral and Burial Traditions: Interviews and Personal Stories — WOW! I plucked a copy from the rack and clutched it possessively to my chest as I continued to browse. I few moments later, Andrew followed my path into the gift shop and I heard him urgently whispering my name. I trotted over to him, and he pointed to the book, “Look! This is something you’ll be very interested in.”
I replied, “You’re right — look!” showing him the copy I’d already claimed as my own.
Let’s read through it together!
In reading the book’s Foreward, I learned that an interest in Mennonite funeral customs is in Roes’ blood: her great-grandfather established Dreisinger Furniture and Undertaking in 1904, in Elmira. She has many childhood memories of seeing various funerary accoutrements, belonging to the various groups of Mennonites in the region. Now, in conducting these interviews, she was learning more about them.
And so am I!
I’m thoroughly charmed by Roes’ descriptions of how she came to meet the folks she interviews for this book. On page 5 she describes attending a public meeting of the Waterloo Historical Society in order to ask the audience for a contact in a certain Old Order Mennonite community. She is given a name and address, she mails a note, hears back, and an interview is set. I love this.
Reading about the Old Order Mennonite method of grave digging is very interesting. I learned that in winter, pickaxes and crowbars are used by men working in shifts, since machines may not be used. Apparently grave digging is considered a time of fellowship, a way of getting acquainted. You know… that makes sense to me. For real. (Or maybe it’s just all this pandemic isolation talking — even the idea of digging a grave in winter with strangers sounds like a good idea to me at this point.)
Within the book, are photos taken within the Schneider Haus Museum — the place I bought the book. This feels meta.
This book also contains an interview with a gentleman who makes grave markers! This is in the old style and it gives me some of an idea of how the grave markers I see on my adventures may have been made.
To demonstrate the changes in letter styling, Roes includes a page written by Barb Draper, about “the three wives of Levi P. Martin”. So, the idea is Levi had all three stones made, depicting the changes in lettering over the years. They’re so different, I wouldn’t have thought they were from the same era. I suppose they weren’t… Elizabeth died in 1869, Barbara died in 1906, and Lydia died in 1946.
Now, about the funeral menus of Ontario Mennonites — they seem familiar yet exotic to me. I’d like to take inspiration from these menus for summer picnics. For example, bread and butter, creamed potatoes and summer sausage. Pickles and orange-flavoured cookies are also mentioned, and sound lovely. There is a section near the end that describes Russian Mennonite funeral traditions, and cheese and platz is mentioned here. Funeral faspas, but also very good ideas for picnics, in my opinion.
From this book, I’ve learned that in the case of dying by suicide, people are not buried in the established row, but rather by the fence. This is very sad, and something I have come across among Russian Mennonites as well. Perhaps we all have ancestors whose graves were found a little outside of the cemetery. (I know I do. My uncle told me about this discovery, before he passed away. More investigation is required on my part.)
Also contained in this book, a “hidden gem” cemetery that Roes likes to visit. It’s going on my list of places to visit when we return to the area someday.
Several times, in her interviews, Roes encounters people reflecting on how children perceive death and funeral rituals. It’s often difficult to understand, and disconcerting. I feel that.
One memorable story from this book is from the Amish Mennonite tradition, where one person would be elected to sit up all night with the body, as a kind of Amish “wake”. This person fell asleep and some friends slipped into the house, took the body and stood it up in a corner, so when the “watcher” awoke, well, he was quite frightened… and it was hilarious to the other friends. Whoa! (Names were all withheld.)
The end of the book includes a section entitled “Comfort / Funeral Food”… and included here is a recipe for Homemade Mustard! I’ll have to try it.
At the very end of the book are snippets directly from the Erb Street Mennonite Church cookbook! The one on Russian Mennonites is very familiar to me… what with its mention of bubbat and all.
Reading Mennonite Funeral and Burial Traditions: Interviews and Personal Stories makes me feel like I’m having afternoon coffee with all of these charming, kind people Roes spoke with in compiling this book. It’s definitely niche… but, it’s my niche.
Upon our return home, I noticed this book is available at the Mennonite Heritage Village Books & Gifts shop!
Sometimes you have to leave home to return and see what was in front of you all along.
(The Village Books & Gifts Shop is open online, here: https://mennonite-heritage-village.com/store/)