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From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill – 12/24/2003


Funeral on the Prairie

“Funeral on the Prairie” may seem like an odd title for a Christmas Eve column. And it probably is. This week I'm trying to make the point that is just as important to record our own experiences and the events of today as it is to construct an accurate record of the distant past. Hopefully I'll do that.

There's a small German Lutheran cemetery a few miles south of the town where I was born and raised. I have been there numerous times—always in the heat of summer to read the stones and always in the cold of winter to attend funerals. Being related to over half the cemetery means there's always one just more stone that I need to read. For most of my life, I've had six ancestors buried in that cemetery. On December 4th of this year, that number changed to seven.

On a cold, wet December day, my Granddad was laid to rest in the same church cemetery where his own grandmother was buried over one hundred years ago. A John in a family where every generation had a John, my Granddad passed away on December 2, 2003, at the age of eighty-six. Two days later, there was a funeral on the prairie at the cemetery, a few miles from where he was born and raised.

The last names on most of the stones in the cemetery are good old Ostfriesen surnames, names I have heard all my life. It was after I had grown and moved away that I realized just how unusual these names sound to most people. Granddad could speak “Platt,” the low-German dialect spoken by his Ostfriesen ancestors. Whenever I heard it, it always sounded strange and yet somehow familiar. The names sounded as normal as anything because I had always heard them, but complete sentences in Platt just struck me as odd. I can remember the shocked look on my youngest daughter's face the first time she heard him speak anything other than English.

Christmas Eve
Christmas Eve was always filled with tradition when I was a child. There was always the program at church with the requisite paper bag of candy handed out after the service. The exact contents would vary, but chocolate stars and an orange were an absolute must. We always attended church on Christmas Eve with my Mother's parents, where the children were the program (including a one-time toddler who slept through most of one of his earlier programs). The highlight of the service was the singing of “Silent Night” with the lights dimmed and the parishioners holding up lit candles. We usually sang one verse in German as a tribute to the heritage shared by many church members. While I usually mumbled through the words, I can remember my grandfather singing the song in the only language he spoke until he was five. Those familiar with German will know that the words to the song would have been in High German and not in Platt.

But there was more to Christmas Eve than a version of an old hymn. After church, my grandparents would come over to my parents' house where we had oyster stew, which we only had once a year. I never understood why it was called “stew” either. It certainly was not like the beef stew to which I was accustomed. My brother and I never ate the oysters, just the broth, and always with plenty of saltine crackers. I never even saw one of the cooked oysters until I was in my teens. And while I'm not certain, I think my mother was afraid that if I saw one of the slimy masses in the pot that I'd never eat the broth again. Besides the stew, we always had “checkerboard” sandwiches, made with white and wheat bread and held together by pimento spread. To this day, I associate oyster stew, checkerboard sandwiches with Christmas Eve and my grandparents. It was one of the things about Christmas that I missed most once I moved away and started my own family.

In our yard, we've got a reindeer that my grandparents gave us several years ago as a Christmas present, the kind with lights that raises and lowers its head as if eating the frozen grass in our yard. Every time I see it, I remember Granddad giving it to us.

The Pipe
For as long as I could remember, there was always the smell of pipe smoke at my grandparents' house. The can of tobacco was always on the desk in the den. The ashtray was always by the easy chair in the living room. After Granddad's heart attack, he was forbidden to smoke his pipe. When we went to the house the first time after the heart attack, the can of tobacco was gone and the ashtray had disappeared. We never saw them again. Years later, I saw one of the empty tobacco cans in the barn and it brought back the memory.

We've all got memories of our own. Take the time to record yours. And if you've got ancestors living, take the time to record their stories. Don't just leave the memories in your head or the recording of stories to “another day.” One day you or someone else will wish you had taken the time to make that record.

Here's wishing Happy Holidays to all the Ancestry Daily News readers!


Michael John Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is the Web columnist for the FGS FORUM and is on the editorial board of the Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly. He conducts seminars and lectures on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at: mjnrootdig@myfamily.com or visit his website at: www.rootdig.com/, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

Copyright 2003, MyFamily.com. All rights reserved.
Used by the author on his website with permission.

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