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Care of Dead Reflects Views of Life

Case, Jack E. “Care of Dead Reflect Views of Life.” Bismarck Tribune, 16 February 1982, 9A.


“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 “rosegardens 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.

P.V. Thorson, associate professor of history at the University of North Dakota, says that many of the Norwegian congregations shared the German Catholic distaste for suicide.

He says he has heard of instances where the bodies of suicides were denied admission to the cemetery by the front gate and their coffins had to be lifted over a back fence for interment in holy ground.

“Scandinavian funeral services continued to use the language and liturgy of the native church until after World War II,” says the Rev. Duane Lindbergh of Waterloo, Iowa.

Lindbergh served several churches in North Dakota and has written a book on the Norwegian clergy. It is called “Men of the Cloth.”

“Norwegians who came here in 1870 and 1871 continued to use the Norwegian state church’s order of service, which was simply translated into English when the language changed,” Lindbergh relates.

“It is important to the Norwegians that funeral services be conducted in the church building, and many of them still use something in the mother language like a solo, the Lord’s Prayer or a Norwegian hymn like ‘Behold the Host.’

“The funeral itself always involved a sermon, and it was not generally considered in good taste to overeulogize the deceased. The services always involved some congregational singing and solos.

“The body originally would be at the home, and friends would call at the home and bring gifts of food. The coffin would be open at the church but closed when the services ended.

“After the committal services, the congregation would return to the church to eat. It was important that the people gather together as a vehicle for a community symbol of the end of the world. It was the ‘banquet of the lamb of God,’ the fulfillment of heaven.”

An account of the first Norwegian settlement in the Cooperstown area recalls that one Norwegian custom that has died out was the issuing of special invitations to funerals.

The invited friends assembled in the forenoon, bringing with them cakes, sandwiches and other food with which a sumptuous dinner was prepared.

“Scandinavians are by and large stoic, and you could not measure the degree of love by outward evidence of tears. They have a controlled response to death ultimately rooted in the faith that (death) is the road to heaven,” says Lindbergh.

He says the original Norwegian immigrants were rural people whose basic goal was “160 acres or more of good land,” and their churches were rural.

“The cemeteries often surround the church,” Lindbergh explains, “but this concept wasn’t practical when the churches moved into the towns because there wasn’t sufficient land. Ground used for cemeteries is considered hallowed and holy.”

He notes that the Norwegians put great emphasis on the care of graves. “Living members of the families continue to maintain the graves and keep them up,” he says.

Lindbergh says that, through the years, efforts were made to mark all of the graves, originally with wood markers and later with stone, which was used in native Norway.

“Gravestones often have Scriptures or some other message in Norwegian,” he says.

North Dakota has one of the nation’s largest concentrations of Icelandic people, says William Sturlaugson, Pembina County auditor, but their funeral customs differ little from those of North Dakota’s other Scandinavian Lutherans.

“There are about 1,000 Icelanders buried in half a dozen different cemeteries in this area,” he estimates, “and the older tombstones are often in the Icelandic language. There was no particular order for the graves and most of them used granite or other stones for tombstones. In the early days, the Icelandic language was used for funeral and other services, and I was confirmed in that language.

“Some of the cemeteries are right beside the churches and in others they are separated. The services and burial customs are just about the same as the Danes’, Swedes’ and Norwegians’. There are graves dating back to the 1860s.”

Funeral customs and philosophy of North Dakota’s Hutterites are described by author John Hostetler, who writes: “Death to the Hutterites means termination of earthly struggles and a beginning of paradise. They prefer a slow death with time to consider eternity and make everything right. The Hutterites bury their dead men in a white shirt and black trousers and their women in a black dress. Wakes would be held for two nights before the funeral, with alternate hymns and Scripture reading. The Hutterites have an emotional acceptance of death.”

Nicholas Vrooman of the North Dakota Arts Council is studying ethnic cemeteries and notes that the Metis people of the Turtle Mountain area, who have French and Chippewa ancestors, are noted for distinctive tombstones.

“They made a lot of tombstones cast from a slab of concrete with colored glass bottles imbedded in them and often inlaid with colored pebbles,” says Vrooman.

Prior to the coming of the white man, both village and nomadic Indians of North Dakota practiced scaffold burials, relates Mary Jane Schneider, chairman of Indian studies at the University of North Dakota.

“The Arikara, Mandan and Hidatsa village Indians practiced scaffold burials as late as 1900, and often had ‘cemeteries’ of scaffolds,” Schneider says. “The scaffolds had religious significance but they were also practical because for much of the year the ground is frozen in North Dakota and it was very difficult to dig graves with bones or sticks as tools.

“Lewis and Clark noted the scaffold practice in their journals. The Indians believed that persons who died with a leg or arm missing would go to a different place in the hereafter than the others, and thus the scaffold protected the bodies from dogs and wolves.

“The Sioux also buried their dead on scaffolds, though they had no cemeteries, but in the eastern part of the state as late as 1850 the Chippewa placed their dead in ‘grave houses.’ They would build a little peaked house over the grave in the ground, and then place in front of it a stick with the tribal totem on it.”

Schneider says that both the nomadic Sioux and the village Indians practiced “ghost keeping” in which a bit of hair and other articles of the dead person were made into a bundle. The bundle was kept for a year or more, given food and talked to until the tribe deemed that the time had come to end the mourning, release the ghost and relieve the family. At that time the family would give away things that belonged to the dead person and new things would be given [to] the family.

“Modern Indian burial customs are quite similar to the white people’s and depend upon whether the Indians are Protestant or Catholic,” Schneider says, “ but the gift giving is still done today.”

The Mandan and Hidatsa give items away right after the funeral, but the Sioux usually wait a year or more. A feast always accompanies the gift-giving, which includes shawls, star quilts and war bonnets. At the time of a death, friends and relatives rally around the family and bring food.

Schneider notes that earlier among the Sioux, a person who died suddenly would simply be left undisturbed in his tepee. The body was left behind when the tribe moved.

She says many modern Indians are outraged that whites have excavated Indian grave sites, and are reluctant to discuss burial customs or locations that remain undisturbed.

The Ukrainians who came to southwestern North Dakota around the turn of the century brought their Byzantine Rite religion with them and conducted services in “church Slavonic,’ which is to Ukrainian what Latin is to Italian says Agnes Palanuk of the Ukrainian Cultural Institute in Dickinson.

She says that the Ukrainian church, while using different rites, professes allegiance to the Roman Catholic pope.

“There are special prayers for the dead,” she explains, “and we have special services the night before. The body is displayed in a special room and then is moved into the church for the funeral services. The casket is open in the room, closed during the services and then opened for a final view. There is always a sermon but no eulogy. Whether English is used or Ukrainian depends on the family.”

Palanuk says Ukrainian cemeteries are distinctive for their wrought iron crosses, which are taller than those found in German-Russian cemeteries. Those from the early times are elaborate with filigree. The inscriptions are in Ukrainian and the crosses often contain a photograph of the deceased, taken before death and preserved against the weather.

Czech language on a grave marker at New Hradec reflects part of the community’s ethnic background. Artful, wrought-iron markers were frequently used in the early days of North Dakota.

Reprinted with permission of the Bismarck Tribune.

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