Historic Funeral Traditions: American Germans

Many early German grave stones contain elaborate hand-carved lettering.

Many early German grave stones contain elaborate hand-carved lettering.

Did you know that Americans of German descent outnumber those Americans of Irish and English descent? The first Germans to arrive in the New World were those who settled in Jamestown, Virginia in 1608. However, the most significant influx of Germans to American occurred during the nineteenth century, with settlements in New York and Pennsylvania.

When Germans arrived in America, like any other ethnic group, they brought their customs and beliefs with them. Some religious traditions have remained in place, such as those practiced by the Amish, Mennonites, Moravians and Hutterites, groups that were formed in the early years and that remain in existence today. While we have covered Amish funeral traditions, this article expands on those traditions to include some practiced in the past and that may be continued today outside the Amish community.

Because there are several different nationalities of German Americans, burial customs vary. But, outside the plain and simplistic logic of the Amish funeral, observers today can view the sadness and loss reflected in German cemetery markers located throughout the U.S. Symbols chosen include angels and females in mourning, urns, wreaths, drapery or shrouded figures in elaborate Gothic style. Early markers also include symbols, or hex signs, intended to ward off evil spirits such as rosettes, stars and stars within circles. Many of these symbols can be seen today, as those symbols may be painted on barns that belong to German ancestors.

Often, you can find German epitaphs such as:

  • Hier Legt (Here Lies)
  • Hier Ruhet (Here Rests)
  • Zum Andenken an (To the Memory of)

On the other hand, many Germans who migrated to the U.S. did so for religious freedom. As Lutherans, or Reformers, many German immigrants regarded death as a new beginning in an eternal life with God. Other traditions might follow along Catholic lines or as Methodists. Today, many German Americans have assimilated to the point that many people do not recognize their German ancestry – but they do recognize their religious affiliation, if any, and follow the advice of their religious advisers for funerals and death practices.

On the other hand, some U.S. funeral directors exist today who are proud of their German heritage and who have studied under German undertakers. Many of these funeral directors are members of the German National Funeral Directors Association and they speak English as well as fluent German. But, in Germany, death took a back seat until the 21st century. In 2007, Germans started the initiative to develop EosTV, a 24/7 show that talks about death and dying and geared mainly toward the elderly.

Death as a topic among Germans is largely suppressed or ignored until it happens. Then, survivors are often at a loss over what to do with their feelings, or how to navigate the practical matters around funerals and estates. To generalize, Germans in Germany today are similar to many other populations around the globe who fear death, yet who must inevitably face it individually.

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