When I was a little girl, I thought the Pennsylvania German word for undertaker was “Furman.” When my little brother died at nine months old, the “Furman” came to help officiate the funeral. Only later did I realize that Furman was the undertaker’s last name.
Furman was a tall, dark-haired, serious man that successfully maneuvered in the Amish community to assist the Amish with the most solemn of their occasions, a funeral. He spoke softly and moved gently. Years ago he was basically the only undertaker the Amish in Lancaster County would hire. Today there are more because there are many more Amish than years ago!
When an Amish person dies, the undertaker will go to the home to get the body for embalming. Later he will bring the body back to the house, where the family will dress it.
A woman will be dressed in a white dress. If she had been married, the family will also dress her in the white cape and apron that she wore on her wedding day (Yes, she will have kept that cape and apron in a safe place all her life for her burial!). A man will be dressed with a white shirt and pants.
If it was a sudden death, a lady from the church will have quickly sewed the clothing. An older person might have had funeral clothes already prepared. My grandma has her burial dress and wedding cape and apron stored in a safe place ready for her death.
The body is laid in a very simple coffin made of wood. The coffin might have some padding on the bottom, but no elaborate carving or padding anywhere else. In Lancaster County, these coffins are made by Amish or Mennonite craftsmen.
The body is kept at the family’s house. The first or second day after the death will be the “viewing.” Friends and family will come to view the body.
I have attended many Amish viewings. As I enter the house, I see rows of solemn-faced people sitting on benches. Except for their white head coverings, the Amish women mourners are always dressed completely in black, and the men mourners wear white shirts and black pants and a black suit coat. My job is to politely shake everyone’s hand, even though I have never met most of them.
I am always secretly amused at the variety of handshakes at an Amish viewing. A sad-faced woman might give me a “fishy” kind of handshake with her hand barely touching mine. A burly man might give me a hearty handshake that almost hurts. Another man will give me a more “normal” handshake. At any rate, it might take a few minutes to safely navigate this maze of people until I get to the room of the dead person.
If I know the family well, some of the family might join me in this room. Most of the furniture has been removed from the room and the coffin is in the middle. Everyone stands around the coffin gazing reflectively at the body. Somebody might say a few words about the dead person. All this is done very solemnly. Nobody smiles. A woman might produce a white handkerchief and dab her eyes.
After this ritual, it is now okay for me to leave. If I know the family of the bereaved person well, I might take a turn sitting at some of the benches in the room and visit quietly with the person beside me. Of course my visiting might be interrupted by new visitors who are now making their way around the room shaking hands.