Care of Dead Reflects Views of Life

Submitted by Carmen Rath-Wald
Logan County Extension Agent

On a recent beautiful spring day, my mother (Helen Rath), and I drove north of Wishek approximately 20 miles to the place where she was born and raised.  The driveway is gated and not much remains of the farm, so we didn’t enter the gate just parked and looked.  To the right of the drive was a gentle mound of ground and my mother asked, “Do you know what that is?”  Well no, I didn’t and she told me it was where an uncle of hers was buried.  It seems he had committed suicide and consequently he was buried in the church cemetery.  My grandmother and grandfather cared for the grave when they were alive, but now, I doubt many even know it exists.

The following is excerpted from Case, Jack E. “Care of Dead Reflect Views of Life.” Bismarck Tribune, 16 February 1982, 9A, and reprinted on the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection website:

“Cemeteries say a lot about how a people look at life as well as death. You can walk through them and trace the changes by the changes in the markers,” says Tim Kloberdanz.

Kloberdanz, assistant professor of sociology at North Dakota State University, adds that, “Regardless of customs, funerals and weddings represent security for the individuals and strengthen their ethnic bonds.”

Superstition and folk customs play a role in ceremonies such as funerals, says Kloberdanz.

He has specialized in studying German-Russian culture, which was brought by immigrants to North Dakota around the turn of the century. Many customs of that culture endured until after World War II and some still continue.

Kloberdanz says the German-Russians accepted death realistically without excessive emotion and had a saying that “Death is free of charge but costs you your life.”

“When a person was dying,” he relates, “the whole family would gather at the house of the dying, but it was not considered good to cry a lot because that would hold back the death of someone who was suffering. Their culture is against display of emotion.”

He says the German-Russians felt there were omens of death, including three mysterious knocking noises in the house, a bird flying toward the window, the hooting of an owl or the howling of a dog late at night and the sole of a boot coming off while walking.

In the early years, coffins were custom-made by local craftsmen to fit the dead person. If a small child died, the godparent of the same sex would carry the coffin on his or her head to the cemetery.

At the cemetery, there were prayers and songs as the coffin was lowered into the grave. Many people found it so moving they would have to leave the ceremonies. During the ceremonies, the singers would “take the voice of the deceased” and tell the others that fate would spare nobody, and that they, too, someday would join the dead.

Kloberdanz says that cemeteries were called “friedhoffs,” meaning “walled cities” ‘in old German, “God’s acres” and “rose gardens where the roses bloom forever.”

German Catholics particularly sought to discourage suicide and would bury people who committed suicide in the far corner of a cemetery or outside it.

Children were baptized as soon as possible, because unbaptized children would be buried in unmarked graves.

In the early years, graves were marked with crosses of wood because it was the most readily available material. Later, wrought iron crosses made by the local blacksmith were used. Up until the 1920s, the crosses often were filled with old symbols.

Those crosses were succeeded by iron crosses cast in a foundry and finally by the concrete and stone markers used today.

Reprinted with permission of Carmen Rath-Wald.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller