Deaths and Funerals

Here in the West Prairie area, if someone became seriously sick, the neighbors would come to that home to sit up with the ill one.  Quite often it would be two neighbor ladies who would sit up the one night, then two others the next night, and so on.  This was a great help to the affected family, and gave them welcome rest for the night.  In fact, this practice continued into the early 1940's.

Occasionally these situations would be the final illness, and if the death occurred in wintertime, with its blocked roads and perhaps severe weather, then the families around here could count on Mrs. Ole L. Anderson to come and help with preparations of the deceased, and other acts of comfort to the family, besides bringing along some food as an act of kindness.  She was a wonderfully helpful lady in all circumstances.  Her baptized name was Martha, but everybody called her by the name Malla, sort of a Norwegian name.

Undertakers were very seldom used out here prior to the mid 1930's, although I've been told that Steve Rorvig did preside over some funerals in the 1910-1930 period.  Caskets could be bought in Binford at the Buchheit-Bakken store.  A wooden rough box was placed in the grave to receive the casket.  The grave was dug by the neighbors, a terribly hard job in the winter when much snow sometimes would have to be cleared off the site, and much chopping with the pick ax preceded each shovelful of clay that was thrown out.  And if the ground was dry in the summertime that clay had to be pick-axed also, so digging a grave here at West Prairie was never an easy job.

I can still remember, in those early 1930's, that there were pale lavender colored funeral cloths (or decorations) hung on the altar and pulpit, and also the first four or five pews.  Hanging these decorations was the job of Malla and Annie (Mrs. Ole 0.  Anderson), and those decorations did give the funeral service a more somber atmosphere, I thought.  Clara Rorvig told me that prior to the lavender color decorations there were black and white cloths used.

In those days the body of the deceased was kept at the family farm home awaiting the day of the funeral, and most often one or two neighbors would stay with the family in the meantime.  In the hotter part of summer it was essential to hold the funeral as soon as possible.  In the very earliest days of the settlement here a minister was not always available to conduct the funeral service, especially in winter, so the burial was made by family and neighbors, and when a minister might come around in the spring a committal service would be held.  At West Prairie a little Gabrielson girl died in September of 1889, at six months of age, and the committal (Jordfestelse) was held in May of 1890 by Pastor I.L. Lundeby.

On the day of the funeral the pastor, neighbors, and relatives would gather at the family home and a short home service would be held.  Then after a meal, and a short time of visiting, the casket was loaded on a wagon (or a sleigh in wintertime), an the whole assembly set off to the church solemn procession.

West Prairie Church was built in the summer of 1896, and the bell was installed then also.  At the congregation's annual meeting that year, among other business, rules and regulations for ringing the bell were drawn up.  In the case of funerals, these were the rules to be followed:

  1. Upon notice of a death in the congregation (of a member, that is) the sexton is to ring the bell at sundown.

  2. On the funeral day the ringing shall begin when the funeral procession is about one-half mile from the church, so that the first half of that (ringing) is outright ringing, and the last half is tolling with the hammer until the procession has arrived at the church.

  3. When the funeral service is over: tolling with the hammer as the casket is carried from the church to the grave, then pausing while the casket is lowered into the grave and the usual hymn is sung, and the committal service is finished.  Then the years of age of the departed one are tolled, one toll for each year as the grave is filled.  Signed secretary Tollef (Tvedt) Tweed.

Now back to the remembrances:

The funeral was held at 2 p.m., the casket having been placed on a stand at the front of the church.  After the sermon those who were present filed past the open casket to view the remains, then back to their pews (this was the wintertime procedure).  The first funeral I clearly remember was the one held for Hans Moen.  He died suddenly in C.P. Dahl's store in Jessie December 31, 1931, and his funeral was held January 3, 1932, at West Prairie.  I sat with my uncle Ole in church, and I remember that as we walked past the casket Ole had to lift me up so that I could see Hans.  Another funeral that I clearly remember in those days was the one that was held for Mrs. Paul (Anna) Rorvig.  My mother sang in the choir that day; that was in January of 1933.

In those days, most, or all, of the services were in Norwegian, and I can so clearly remember that at the committal service beside the grave the short hymn "Aa tenk naar en gang samles skal" ("Oh happy day when we shall stand") was sung by all, with our pastor Marcus Tufteland leading the singing, his silvery hair and long, black gown blowing in the wind.  And then the six pallbearers lowered the casket into the grave with some light ropes.

There was much more feeling of respect for the one who had died, and the family, in those days.  If a dance or a party had been scheduled in the community prior to the death, it was canceled, out of a feeling of respect.  Not so today, in many cases.

In our community, we have had many people ready to give a word of comfort, and an act of help, in times of need.  Especially I think of Mrs. Ole L. Anderson for the acts of kindness she gave to our community.  At the time of birth she would bring food, and words of happiness.  At baptism and confirmation she brought gifts and a smile.  At weddings her presence was a gift in itself.  But it was at the time of sickness and death that she really shone, by the food, by the words of comfort, and by the acts of kindness that she brought to that home.  It is good that she lived amongst us.  God bless her.

Allen Osmundson

Source: Cooperstown, North Dakota 1882-1982 Centennial Page 131

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