Historic Funeral Traditions: The Amish

Although most people would identify the Amish with the known “Pennsylvania Dutch” settlement in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, there are many Amish communities located throughout the U.S. Because of their religious beliefs, Amish try to separate themselves from “outsiders” in efforts to avoid temptation and sin. They choose, instead, to rely on themselves and other members of their local Amish community.

As in life, Amish funerals always have been simple affairs, usually held at the home with no embalming (unless required by state law). While the traditional black crepe and funeral flowers often are eschewed, the Amish do follow the custom of wearing black (The tradition of wearing black during a funeral began when it was firmly believed that the color black makes the living less visible to the spirit world – see more in Supersitions About Death and Dying). With that said, the Amish usually wear dark clothes as a matter of daily affairs.

The following list contains some historic Amish burial traditions. If these traditions have changed, that information is included as well. Some Amish communities may not hold strictly to the old traditions, but – on the whole – the following may help you understand how the Amish view death and dying:

  • Four bearers were selected among the deceased’s friends. If the deceased was single, then single friends were chosen and married friends if the deceased was married. Today, the Amish may use a funeral home, but it would be a home that is familiar with Amish burial traditions. Many Amish communities will allow the embalming of the body by that undertaker, but some communities remain faithful for tending to the corpse. In all cases, no makeup is applied to the deceased.
  • The bearers were responsible for readying the home for the funeral, digging a grave and preparing the wagon to transport the body to the cemetery. Today, the wake and funeral still may be held in the home of the deceased or the family’s home, and graves still are dug by hand.
  • Today, the undertaker embalms the body, if required or requested, and normally dresses it in long underwear before placing it in the coffin and returning to the Amish family. The body is usually dressed in white clothing by family members of the same sex. For men, this usually means white pants, vest, and shirt; for women a white dress, cape, and apron. In many cases the white cape and apron is the same one she wore on her wedding day (Learn more about specific Lancaster County, Pennsylvania Amish customs). Usually, the final clothing is made by the family.
  • Caskets are plain pine boxes, wooden coffins made within the local community. They use simple pine boxes made locally instead of ornate coffins. The deceased is generally buried in the local Amish cemetery.
  • The body is viewed three times, a custom that has not changed: First at a small service at the home; then, at a larger service at a barn or church; finally, at the grave site.
  • The Amish funeral consisted of a sermon and prayers, but no eulogy or singing. Ministers may read hymns, however. After the simple ceremony, the preacher led the procession to the burial ground, either near the church or at a home plot, where the bearers lowered the coffin into the grave and filled the grave with the mourners watching. The preacher would then offer a benediction. The funerals were conducted entirely in Pennsylvania Dutch, a form of German.  Today, there is little change in these customs.
  • After the funeral, family and friends would return to the deceased’s home for a simple meal. This custom has not changed.
  • Historic Amish tombstones are plain and fairly uniform, with a simple epitaph that states the name, birth and death dates and age in years, months and days. The plots are bare, and usually no foliage is planted. Children usually are buried in unmarked graves or have small headstones that lie flat on the ground.  In some Amish communities, the elders maintain a map of the cemetery to identify occupants in each plot. Usually, this custom follows the community’s desire to avoid tombstones. These customs have changed little from the past.

Reasons behind these customs:

  • The Amish believe that the spirit has left the person’s physical body upon death, so they do not feel the need to commemorate the dead (as in a Memorial Day). Their intent is on praising God, even at death – hence the lack of eulogies.
  • An Amish funeral and burial is generally held three days after death, in the custom that it usually took three days to dig the grave.
  • The Old Order Amish do not have churches, so funerals are held in two locations. The smaller service is held in the home of the deceased, and then the body is taken to a separate place, usually a barn, for a larger service.
  • While the service focuses entirely on the concept of Christian resurrection and the hope of life after death, the Amish take part in every other part of saying goodbye as they tend to the grave, the body and to the home services.

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