Mourning the Amish Tragedy

Grieving in Silence

Milk Truck-Driver Executed Children in Pennsylvania Amish Schoolhouse

Charles Carl Roberts IV, a 32-year-old milk-truck driver carrying three guns and a childhood grudge, stormed into a one-room Amish schoolhouse on Monday, sent the boys and adults outside, barricaded the doors with two-by-fours and then opened fire on a dozen girls. Roberts killed some of the girls and critically injured others, before turning a gun upon himself and committing suicide. The latest reports state that six of the girls have died and the death toll might rise. Most of the children were shot execution-style at point-blank range after being lined up along the chalkboard inside the schoolhouse, their feet bound with wire and plastic ties. The shooting occurred around 10:45 a.m. on Monday in Nickel Mines, which is located in the heart of Pennsylvania Amish country.

On the evening of the shooting, Amish neighbors from the Nickel Mines community gathered to talk about their feelings of grief with each other and mental health counselors. According to reports by counselors who attended the grief session, the Amish family members grappled with a number of questions: Do we send our kids to school tomorrow? What if they want to sleep in our beds tonight, is that okay? But one question they asked might surprise outsiders. What, they wondered, can we do to help the family of the shooter? Plans were already underway for a horse-and-buggy caravan to visit Charles Carl Roberts’ family with offers of food and condolences. The Amish don’t automatically translate their grieving into revenge. Rather, they believe in redemption.

The Funeral Services

Funeral services for many of the children are being held on Thursday. In the aftermath of Monday’s violence, the Amish are looking inward, relying on themselves and their faith, just as they have for centuries. They hold themselves apart from the modern world, and have as little to do with civil authorities as possible. Amish mourners have been going from home to home for two days to attend viewings for the five victims, all little girls laid out in white dresses made by their families. Such viewings occur almost immediately after the bodies arrive at the parents’ homes.

Typically, they are so crowded, ”if you start crying, you’ve got to figure out whose shoulder to cry on,” said a Mennonite midwife who delivered two of the five girls slain in the attack. At some Amish viewings, upwards of 1,000 to 1,500 people might visit a family’s home to pay respects. Such visits are important, given the lack of e-mail and phone communication.

Update: In Thursday’s Amish funeral ceremonies, made even more touching and heartbreaking by centuries-old simplicity, four of the little girls were buried as the Amish of Pennsylvania turned the other cheek. With television and newspaper cameras kept at a distance, and police helicopters enforcing a no-fly zone overhead, one of the few non-Amish guests invited to the funeral of seven-year-old Naomi Rose Ebersole, the first little girl to be buried, was Marie Roberts, the killer’s wife.

With tears in her eyes, Mrs. Roberts sat in the back of one of the 34 black horse-drawn carriages that were part of the funeral cortege behind Naomi’s horse-drawn hearse. On the way from the church to the hilltop cemetary, the procession passed Mrs Roberts’ home where her husband, Charles, loaded up his guns before heading for the little village school on Monday.

On Saturday, Amish mourners joined family and friends for the funeral of the Pennsylvania truck driver who killed five Amish girls before taking his own life. Charles Carl Roberts IV was laid to rest in the graveyard of the Georgetown United Methodist Church, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. The cemetery is not far from the school where the shootings took place and the Amish graveyard where his victims are buried. The Amish who came to the burial gave condolences to Roberts’ wife and three children.

Also on Saturday, local Amish leaders met to discuss the future of the West Nickel Mines School. Mike Hart, one of two non-Amish members of a board set up to handle donations following the killings, said the plan is to build a new school in a different location.

As part of their traditional manner during times of crisis, the deeply-religious villagers of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, turned inwards for support yesterday with prayers before, during and after each of the three ceremonies. As a Quaker, I have an empathic sense for the devout, private and quiet commitment to passivism and peace shared by members of The Old Order Amish. My kindest thoughts are with the Amish people as they embark upon the mutually reciprocal journey of healing themselves.

Background Music by Bette Midler:

Slide Show: A Memorial for the Amish

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