Thursday, April 21, 2016

MOP April 20--Finding My Great-Grandpa's Grave

The last few years, I've been intrigued with family stories, and this sad tale of my great-grandpa in particular.  Here's the brief version:

Aaron Miller was a fine young man living near Charm in Holmes County, Ohio.  At 28 years old, he was married to Mary and had two little boys, Enos and Adam.  Mary was pregnant with a third boy. Aaron was known to be a capable and hardworking farmer.

No doubt all these things factored into the church ordaining him to the ministry in the spring of that year.  Unfortunately, the church was having serious problems.

One day, at about noon, Aaron told his brother he's going out to see if the clover was ready to harvest.   The afternoon wore on and he didn't return, so the family went looking for him.

He had taken his own life, hanging himself in a tree.

Such a death carried such terrible shame in the Amish culture that he was buried outside the cemetery, on the other side of the fence.

We heard the story from Mom, never in a lot of detail, but at least it was honestly told.  I thought about it a lot more after I lost a nephew, Leonard, to suicide almost ten years ago.

What are these dark threads weaving through our lineage, I wondered, wreaking such unspeakable pain?  Was there hope for our children?  Did our story go on?  Were we doomed to terrible secrets and continual shame?

The reason for our trip to Ohio last month was to speak at a women's retreat.  But what a great opportunity to take a side trip into our family history.

A few years ago, I heard a hint that maybe the fence had been moved to include Aaron's grave inside the cemetery.  Strange how that news gave me a lift of hope, for myself now, for the future, and even back into the past.  I was determined to find his grave and see for myself.

I emailed my brother Marcus who contacted our second cousin Marvin for directions, and in the morning, before the retreat started that afternoon, we followed the directions out of Berlin and down ever-narrower back roads until we were back in the hills creeping along a one-lane dirt road, looking for a lane to the north.

Finally we asked an Amish girl on a bike, and she pointed us to the lane we had passed twice.  "Follow it on back," she said, "Past the house."

So we did.  It went from gravel to mud to a grassy track, and there on a bit of a rise was the little cemetery, beautiful and old and quiet and looking out over a valley with fields and a sawmill.

We opened the gate and went in, and within minutes we found it, a small, tilted gravestone for Aaron Miller.

Suddenly I was in tears, thinking of that terrible terrible day, the horse-drawn hearse slowly trundling back that long lane, the long line of silent people, that desolate little widow, 25 years old, rounded with child, holding the hands of two frightened little boys, and the overwhelming sense of disaster, of darkness, of abandonment, of condemnation, of loss.

Then, in a final twist of pain, her young husband that she loved and desperately needed was buried outside the fence, because his deed was too bad to ever be atoned for, and the whole community saw her and her boys as the tainted leftovers of his sinful choice.

So I cried for her, and for all of us since who have lived under any cloud of shame and rejection, and did not know that there are words for this, and truth, and hope, and help, and even, impossibly, redemption.

I don't know how or why the decision was made, but at some point in the fairly-recent past, the cemetery needed to be enlarged, and they moved the fence so that it now encloses Aaron's grave, and he is now buried with his community and his people.
At the far end, on the right, you can see where the new part of the fence begins.
I wished I could tell my great-grandma about it.

Later that day, I found a genealogy book about my ancestors in the Anabaptist  Heritage Center. Several pages were devoted to Aaron's death.  An old account reads, "The deceased . . . left a wife and 2 children, father, mother, brothers, and sisters, who are deeply sorrowing over this rash deplorable act."

This is a broken world, and we are broken people.  Depression is genetic and really awful, and sometimes it overpowers a person and wins.

But it isn't the end of the story. I am sure of that. Here we are, Aaron's descendants, and there are lots of us, and we are survivors and storytellers and moms and dads and students and singers, and we get to see sunsets, and we fight hard.

We still grieve for Leonard, but we know that Jesus takes away not only guilt but also shame, and He heals.  We have moved on, and we have redeemed his death by talking about depression in honest words, by asking for help, and by a deep and continuing compassion for hurting people.  We are not ok with "fine" when we ask "How are you?"  We are adamant about wanting the truth.

We believe that the story goes on.

I wish I could go back and tell my great-grandparents that the word is depression, it isn't their fault,  there are things you can do for it, and it's ok to ask for help.  I'd like to tell them that the shame their community placed on them was not from God, and that Jesus takes our shame and gives back His glory.  I want to tell them that silence is wrong and unnecessary, the truth will set them free, and they are unimaginably loved.  And they have a hope and a future.

Since I can't tell them, I am telling you instead.


  1. My family farmed the area I now live when it was first opened to settlement. Beside one of the main roads, on a small uprising, surrounded by gum trees & enclosed by a little wrought iron fence is a gravestone. Most people don't even know it's there but we do. He is family. In death as in life, quite alone, overlooking the land he came to. I so like knowing he's there. ☺

  2. My family tree on both sides is full of darkness and soap opera-type stuff, which surprises most people who know me and my family. Thanks for writing this.

  3. Thank you for sharing this. A family I knew growing up, experienced the same when their youngest son took his own life. Even with our knowledge of the saving and healing grace of Jesus Christ it was a hard thing to go through. I can't imagine how anyone gets through it without that knowledge.
    I think the passage in Isaiah 61:1-3 is healing, so full of hope; part of which says, "To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified."

  4. I wish I could ask my Grandparents about Adam and his family. They lived in Charm during this time and she battled with depression. Her five youngest children are buried high on a hill overlooking Charm, four died as stillborns or as soon as they were born. Mosie was born with a heart defect and lived for about 5-6 years. I have never cried over Grandma's loss and depression until now.

  5. My great-grandfather also battled depression. They lost several children to diphtheria, their home to fire, and one child was crippled for life as an infant. He took his life when my grandpa was 20. I saw his suicide note once -- he told Grandpa he was old enough to take care of the family now. To care for his mother. I've wondered how modern treatment would have affected his life.

  6. My great-grandfather also battled depression. They lost several children to diphtheria, their home to fire, and one child was crippled for life as an infant. He took his life when my grandpa was 20. I saw his suicide note once -- he told Grandpa he was old enough to take care of the family now. To care for his mother. I've wondered how modern treatment would have affected his life.

  7. Thank you, Dorcas! This brings weeping, and yet hope amid the fears! Bless you for sharing this story from your past! Redemption...our fallen humanity for his glory, what a gift! Loila

  8. I'm so glad you wrote about this. In the last several years I've asked a lot of questions about what happened. For me to learn that depression was part of my history was so helpful to hear because I realized that I was not alone. God gives grace & we can find healing. Thank you for writing this. - Gene King

  9. So well said, Dorcas. Thank you for taking us with you into this hard place and reminding us why Jesus came. I don't know if you care for a non-family member hug, but here's a virtual one offered in love.

  10. Thanks Dorcas for sharing about this reentry into the heart of Grief. It seems that where such deep grief is there is the presence of Jesus very nearby for he was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. How can adding shame to grief be a representation of Jesus?! Oh to be a the face of Jesus to those hurting quietly onad obscurely among us!!

  11. Beautifully written. Shame is such an ugly, destructive monster.

  12. Thank you so much.

  13. Thank you so much for sharing your story.
    From a mom who son died at 24.

  14. You are so gifted Dorkas, your words are very powerful. I am so pleased to have read this post, so very pleased to hear there are people who are not content with 'fine', you are so right. We need to listen, take time to hear the unspoken words of body language or whatever. We might not know how close someone is to suicide, and so I think we should be kind, and smile, and maybe it will give someone hope that someone cares. Thank you for this post.

  15. Thanks for sharing your family's story. Depression is a quiet battle which many fight in secret and still misunderstood by many. We need to continue to truly listen to others and remove our masks letting others in to see our less than perfect lives, doubts, fears, pain, and struggles.

  16. What beautiful words that come out of something so tragic and so long ago. The story of redemption through Christ continues. Thank you for sharing this!