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New book digs into Mennonite funeral rites

Marion Roes’ new book explores the various ways different Mennonite groups handle funerals and burials. A launch event is planned for May 23. [Veronica Reiner / The Observer]

Marion Roes sets out to highlight little-known traditions of the Mennonite community in her new book.

Written mostly from interviews and personal stories, Mennonite Funeral and Burial Traditions explores the generally private world of funeral customs in seven Mennonite groups across Waterloo Region.

“Many people in the community see the Mennonites – who are dressed differently, and they see them at different places; they know that they might be at the market – but they don’t really know that much about them,” said Roes, of her inspiration for writing the book.

“There’s nothing wrong with that: they don’t have to, but I think it’s nice to understand a little bit more about the people in our community.”

It also explores the Mennonite traditions beyond Waterloo Region, delving into Oxford, Perth and Wellington counties. It examines a variety of Mennonite denominations including Old Order, Markham-Waterloo, David Martin, Amish, Old Order Amish, Russian and Old Colony.

“A lot of groups have visitations in the home,” said Roes, on significant differences between non-Mennonite and Mennonite burial traditions. “The funeral home staff are not involved then – once they take the body back to the home for the visitation, then the funeral home staff does not help with visitation, they don’t help with the services or the burials, or anything like that.”

The Mennonite Historical Society of Ontario, through the J. Winfield Fretz Publication Fund in Ontario Mennonite Studies, gave Roes a grant to help with the cost of the book. It contains some 80 pictures, including photos from as far back as the 1920s. The book illustrates the various customs of each group.

“Some of the groups do their own digging of the graves. I’ve talked to seven different groups – there are some similarities among them, and differences among them; you can’t generalize,” said Roes. “Some of them make their own caskets, some get caskets through the funeral home, some of them use burial shrouds.”

Roes is no stranger to funerals, being related to the family behind  the Dreisinger Funeral Home in Elmira. Her sister, Grace, works as a funeral director at the home, and she is the great-granddaughter of an undertaker. The familial connection made it easier for Roes to find contacts to interview.

She has experience writing and is currently working on a book about the history of undertakers and funeral businesses in Waterloo Region. Other works include From a Horse-Drawn Hearse to Studebakers, Packards, and Cadillac: Designer Funeral Vehicles and articles for the Waterloo Historical Society.

The official book launch is scheduled for May 23 at Erb Street Mennonite Church, 131 Erb St. W. in Waterloo from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. The book is available at Living Waters in Elmira, Schnurr’s General Store in Linwood, Wallenstein General Store, Anna Mae’s in Millbank, and Words Worth Books in Waterloo.


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