Hope Ness, 1908, a pioneer funeral

(Part 2 of 4)


The preacher from the village a few miles north reached the homestead about midday. He drove a single-horse carriage down the long lane and came to a halt beside the house.  He got down, dusted himself off and looked around, seeming to pass judgement on the house and the surroundings. He was an elderly man, a tall, lean, stern-looking Presbyterian Scot dressed in a suit of plain, black broadcloth and clerical collar that seemed to express the severity of his particular calling.  They were not regular church-goers, so maybe that had something to do with his reserved attitude. He did not appear to be in a mood to offer consolation, but he walked up to the boy’s father, shook his hand, and quietly said something the boy couldn’t make out.

His father hitched the horse up near the barn, then came back and took the preacher inside the house to refresh himself, and to talk of course. After a little while they came out again with the boy’s mother. Then his father went back inside. There followed a somewhat muffled sound of some hammering of small nails. But still, it was painful to hear. The boy saw his mother close her eyes tight, as if that would shield her from the sound. The preacher shifted his weight from one foot to another. The boy didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t cry. He didn’t want to be seen doing that, or seen at all. He wanted to be invisible. Jeannie would know he was there.

The early spring day was grey and cold and threatening a hard rain or possibly even snow. If only the sun had not shone that day, if only it had been this day instead.

He and his mother and the clergyman stood silently as his father carried the little, pine coffin outside and placed it carefully in the back of the family wagon. The fresh, new wood shone like luminous gold against the grey day. His father had worked steadily in the shed for several nights, building the coffin from the best pine planks he could find, planing and sanding them to perfection. Now he was very tired. His face looked pale and drained as he climbed up into the wagon seat and gently urged the mare ahead. The preacher led the way, with the boy and his mother following on opposite sides of the wagon. The little procession passed through the open gate and headed across the field behind the house. The boy noticed his mother was wearing a fine black dress he hadn’t seen before. He knew they couldn‘t afford to buy such a dress, so he thought it must have come from the special trunk that held the few precious things she had brought with her from the city years ago. Her long, dark hair was tied back tight in a bun. She held a black, wool scarf close to her neck as she walked. She stared straight ahead, showing no emotion.

His father kept the mare going as slow as possible across the rough ground , so as not to shake the little coffin too much.  But several times it jolted a bit as the wagon wheels hit a stone or especially uneven spot. The boy imagined the little body of his sister, in her best flowered, print dress; he saw her being jostled around by the irregular motion of the wagon. He imagined her pale, little face going from side to side as if insisting “no, no, this can’t be happening, I’m not dead.“

He saw her favourite doll lying beside her. Mother had placed it gently on her breast. But he knew it had already fallen and was now lying beside her on the bare wood.

He closed his eyes. He didn’t want to see, to think anymore.  All he wanted was to be able to go back and make it not happen. He wanted to tell her he was sorry too, so sorry. And the conflict between those two things was tearing him apart inside, but he fought hard to not let it show.

The night after Jeannie died he had heard his mother crying softly over the body in her room. He had wanted to go to her, to cry with her, to have her put her arms around him and tell him it was alright, that he was forgiven, and that Jeannie was in Heaven now. But he couldn’t, and she didn’t.

His father had spent most of that night in the woodshed, or the barn. “There were things to do,” he had said, choosing to be alone with his pain, turning away quickly when his son had tried to approach him.

And so they had already grown miles apart in the few days since the death of the child. The boy realized it was Jeannie with her special, joyful spirit that had brought them together and given them cause to be happy in the midst of hardship, despite themselves. She seemed to know when it was time to make them laugh, to do something delightful to lighten a heavy moment. And now she was gone. And it was his fault, all his fault.

They stopped under a butternut tree at the edge of the woods. The boy watched his father lift the coffin from the wagon, and, kneeling awkwardly beside the grave he had dug just that morning, place it in the ground. It had been hard digging. The frost was still in the heavy clay soil. Several times he had stopped and watered the grave with tears he could only shed alone. But the man had been comforted to find a good depth before reaching bedrock, so his beloved child would be buried at a decent level, away from the cold.

They stood apart from each other and bowed their heads as the preacher intoned the Lord’s Prayer with little feeling. He was an old man now. Many pioneer children had died during the years of settlement, so he had presided over many such little, family ceremonies in the countryside. The death of yet another child no longer moved him as deeply as it once had. He said a few words about the transitory nature of human existence and God’s promise of Eternal Life and closed the book.

They stood there for a while afterwards, the boy’s mother sobbing quietly, his father struggling to keep his composure. The boy didn’t know what to do. He wished someone would hold him.  Even look at him. But no one did. It was as if he did not exist, as if he too had died and been buried, but alone and unmourned, and his dead body covered with an immense burden of guilt.


He looked up desperately into overcast sky through the still leafless branches of the butternut  tree. Three hawks were circling high, directly overhead. He wondered for a moment if one of them was his hawk. But then he quickly looked away and fixed his eyes on the ground.

And he vowed never, ever, to let his spirit fly again.

To read part 3 of this story, click here.

One thought on “Hope Ness, 1908, a pioneer funeral

  1. Pingback: Hope Ness, early spring, 1908 | Finding Hope Ness

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