Every spring a few people pop over to my Mennonite weddings post no doubt hoping to find advice on what to wear and what to expect at some Mennonite wedding they’ll be attending.
It’s too bad, really, that weddings are their first impression of us.
We’re actually much better at funerals.
This isn’t because we are weirdly focused on the afterlife. Ok, maybe some of us are. But a pretty strong commonality among Mennonites is a focus on living one’s faith in life, here on earth.
Which just happens to include putting on a splashing good funeral when someone passes away. I’m always a little shocked when I hear of families simply opting out of having a funeral when a loved one dies. Funerals are one of our special skills – we wouldn’t dream of skipping them.
Not that all Mennonite funerals are the same. I’ve only ever attended funerals in so-called liberal Mennonite congregations – I don’t know anything at all about funerals in Old Order, Conservative, Old Colony, Holdeman or any of the other plain-dressing communities of Mennonites. And even among the ones I know, there are variations based on ethnicity and individual preferences.
And they’re not unchanging.
Take the question of photography, for instance. A few years back, a number of media outlets started spouting outrage at Millenials who were so disrespectful as to take selfies at funerals. When that happened, all the Mennonites I knew of Russian Menno lineage looked each other in the eye and stayed very quiet. All of our grandparents had albums with pictures of themselves standing beside the casket of a deceased loved one. As a sort of final memorial. Who knew they were just ahead of their time? Oma was a Millenial almost a century too soon.
By the middle of the twentieth century, our parents picked up from the rest of the culture that taking photos with the dead was an odd and inappropriate habit. The practice became an embarrassment. I was hoping to find an old funeral pic for this post but it seems that my mother beat me to it and purged the old family albums years ago (“who would want these?!?” I imagine her saying as she chucked the funeral pics while simultaneously holding onto fifteen boxes of linen doilies).
Even apart from photography, the corpse viewing isn’t as important as it once was in the Mennonite funeral. I expect that’s true of North American funerals more generally though I can’t say for certain; I haven’t studied the trends. But it used to be important. We had a closed casket funeral for my grandmother back in 2001 but we opened it briefly when her siblings arrived because they hadn’t been able to attend the visitation. And needed to see her. I know of another couple of that generation who hurriedly flew across the country stating that there would be no point whatsoever in going to the closed casket funeral of their granddaughter if they couldn’t get there in time to see her body.
Nowadays, we often don’t even have the casket at the funeral service. In fact, we sometimes substitute a photograph for an open casket. If it’s become less acceptable to take photos of the corpse at funerals, it’s become more acceptable to let photos serve as a proxy for the physical body. There’s a dissertation for someone in that.
In format, the Mennonite funerals I’ve known haven’t been all that different from other North American funerals. The basic elements are all there – a visitation, a Church service, burial, and a reception or lunch. And really, as far as I can tell, only the service and reception are in any way Mennonite.
But it’s not the format that makes us so excellent at funerals. It’s how we do them.
For one thing, we show up. Because even if no one would say that the worth of a human life should be measured by the number of people that attend their funeral, there’s not one among us who doesn’t judge a community by its devotion to the mourners in our midst. And we would feel profoundly ashamed were we unable to fill the Church for the funeral of one of our own.
Also, we sing. The very closest friends and family might find it hard to sing through their tears but the rest of us are there to fill the room with music. Sometimes I think that the whole point of regular Sunday hymn-singing is to practice for funerals when we will be called upon to honour the dead with four-part harmony. Despite throats closed from crying.
Because we’ll do that too. Cry. We’re not an overly emotional people and our worship services are not normally filled with tears and high emotions. But we let ourselves go a little at funerals. Not too much. You won’t find loud wails and a lot of open sobbing but if you look to your left and right, you’ll see a discreet hand or two wiping away a tear. Yup. That’s us getting emotional.
We’ll also laugh. Again, not uproariously. But we’re a well trained funeral audience and will politely chuckle at whatever bits of humour are strewn into the reflections of the deceased and the sermon. Because we can all imagine the horror of cracking a joke while standing at the front at a parent’s funeral and no one laughing. No one needs to compound their grief with a joke that dies its own death.
It doesn’t end there. The crying and the laughing continue after the service as well.
The Mennonite funerals that I remember from my youth all included a reception in the Church basement following the service. We sat along long tables in uncomfortable chairs and ate faspa. Sometimes it was served to the tables and sometimes we got up and picked up our own zwieback, raisin bread, cheese and platz from a long table at the front. A funeral faspa was never as elaborate as we might have on a Sunday afternoon. There’d be butter but no jam for our zwieback. There may or may not have been pickles.
And then there was a freiwillige. That’s the formal name for the talking part of the reception. Often the best part of the funeral. Also, the worst part. Freiwillege literally means voluntary but it doesn’t do to translate it like that. After 1993, kids started calling it the Free Willies and feeling very clever about themselves for the wordplay. I’ve also heard it called a Mennonite Open Mic. Which is maybe the best translation.
For proper decorum, the pastor usually announces it as an “informal time of sharing” for the sake of those not in the know. But informal is a relative term. The freiwillege was no time of casually milling about and chatting. Instead, it was always formally informal. Someone would begin by welcoming speakers and one after another friends and family would shuffle to the front, sometimes to speak off the cuff but often unfolding a little piece of paper as they went.
And they would talk. Some would tell lovely, heartwarming stories. Some would tell cringeworthy stories. Some would lose their train of thought halfway through a story. Some would bring up old feuds and petty grievances. Some would talk on and on. About anyone and anything even remotely related to the deceased. Men spoke more than women in those days – they probably still do – but it wasn’t an exclusively male zone. It’s just the funerary manifestation of men having been raised to feel more confident speaking in public.
It’s not always like that anymore. Families sometimes opt out of the freiwillige. Or the people in attendance don’t cooperate. Sometimes everyone is just too happy chatting to settle down for the freiwillege. Sometimes only one or two people have anything to say. Sometimes the number of awkward speakers outweighs the number of nice ones.
But it’s not a dead tradition. I’ve been to a number of Mennonite funerals in the last few years where people settle down in their uncomfortable chairs and wait their turn to speak into the mic. And it’s spreading. The internet tells me that open mic sessions at funerals are a rising trend in some Non-Mennonite segments of society even as the freiwillege is becoming optional for us.
That’s Mennonite for you, always just a little out of sync with fashion. Even funeral fashions.
We don’t serve alcohol at a freiwillege – only coffee and tea – but more and more families are having casual gatherings with alcohol and no open mic after the whole formal funeral. For that, I’ve created a version of the Corpse Reviver just for us. Though it builds on the beauty of the Corpse Reviver no. 2, I’ve added a bit of rhubarb for that certain Mennonite flair. I like to think of this as the Corpse Reviver no. 606.
- 3/4 oz gin
- 1/2 oz lemon juice
- 1/2 oz rhubarb syrup
- 1/2 oz triple sec or cointreau
- 1 oz Lillet Blanc
- 1/4 tsp absinthe
Measure all ingredients into a cocktail shaker and shake vigorously with ice. Serve in a coupe glass and garnish with maraschino cherries and lemon peel. Or rhubarb. Or whatever. Remember to raise your glass to the people you know who are mourning, and feel free to speak off the cuff about anyone or anything whatsoever as you drink.