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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Rest in peace, Old Mariah

Maria Wette, a member of Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Fort Collins, Colo., served as a pastor for six years in the subarctic area of Canada, which is home to the Cree Indians. Occasionally she flew with a pastor from the Lutheran Association of Missionaries and Pilots to Granville Lake, which is accessible only by plane. The pastor of the Cree asked Wette to officiate at the funeral of Old Mariah, the community matriarch, since she was a relative. Old Mariah was said to be more than 100.

The funeral was a community affair that lasted days. “Make it plural—communities,” Wette clarified. “One boat after another landed. The town was swelling to many times its size.”

First came the wake.

“I did my best—prayers, Bible readings. Then the people sang,” she said. “The community is so fabulous in creating the right spirit, and the right spirit is one of family and community. The children played around, everybody cried from time to time, regardless of whether they had loved Old Mariah or hated her. Today was no time for hatred. The casket was open, the children kissed her constantly. I had the impression she was buried in saliva. I liked the way the people said goodbye. The matriarch was once more invited to be a member of the community. There was not a soul in town who was absent from the wake. I left at 2 a.m. Most stayed until morning by which time singing had deteriorated to croaking.

“The next day came the funeral. I was informed it would be at 3 p.m., which means ‘not before 3’—in Cree parlance, any time thereafter. After my liturgy came speeches, some in English, most in Cree. Tears, kisses, more saliva and singing.”

Then, the burial.

The custom, Wette said, is for kin to hammer one nail in to close the lid of the pine box. Old Mariah had 20 children, 50 grandchildren and had lost track of how many great-grandchildren. They lined up on two sides of the box and passed hammers down.

“That is a fine farewell, and it can take a very long time. Nobody hurries at a funeral,” Wette said. “I continued the liturgy, and when I spoke ‘earth to earth’ a barrage of earth rained down on the box. That continued for another one or two hours. Rest in peace, Old Mariah. Life will go on in this community, through those whom you gave birth.”


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