A long, sad procession as Amish community buries little girls

Older women prepared the bodies for burial. They dressed them in white from head to toe -- 'It represents the purity of heaven.'

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By Ann Rodgers, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

NICKEL MINES, Pa. -- Horse hooves sounded the cadence of the funeral processions as four of the five Amish girls murdered Monday by a gunman in their one-room school house were buried yesterday.

Services were held for Naomi Rose Ebersol, 7, Marian Fisher, 13, and sisters Lena and Mary Liz Miller, ages 7 and 8. The funeral for Anna Mae Stoltzfus, 12, will be today.

Five other girls were seriously wounded in the attack, but the hospitals have stopped releasing word of their conditions.

The funerals were held on a brilliant autumn day, though a cold wind robbed the warmth from the bright sun. Amish had been making their way down Mine Road since before dawn, most in closed buggies, some in open carriages, some from far away in cars and vans with non-Amish drivers.

Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette
The funeral procession for the Miller sisters -- Mary Liz, 8, and Lena, 7 -- makes its way yesterday through Georgetown, Lancaster County, before the girls' simple wooden coffins were lowered into the ground at a small Amish cemetery.
Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette
A farmer cuts grass prior to the funeral procession for shooting victim Naomi Rose Ebersol yesterday.
Click photo for larger image.

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Post-Gazette religion reporter Ann Rodgers describes yesterday's funeral arrangements.

Police still probing Amish school killings

Along the road to the homes where the funerals were held they passed the house of shooter Charles Carl Roberts IV, who had killed himself in the classroom as police surrounded the school.

Amish funerals always are held in private homes for invited guests only. To enforce that privacy, police halted traffic for two miles around the area. A 5-mile no fly zone was established in the sky above Nickel Mines to keep news media helicopters away. State police aircraft conducted aerial surveillance.

The news media were corralled at Georgetown United Methodist Church, a modest white building between the homes and the cemetery, where the Amish had given permission for their procession to be photographed. Scores of satellite trucks parked in the yard, while other media vehicles were consigned to a cornfield behind the well-tended cemetery.

One side of a sign outside the church said "Our community thanks you for your prayers." The other side said, "Keep praying."

Rita Rhoads, a Mennonite nurse-midwife, had visited the Ebersol and Fisher families Wednesday night as older women prepared the bodies of the little girls for burial. A funeral home had ensured they were cleaned from their terrible wounds. Then they had been taken home, where the women dressed them in white from head to toe: White head coverings and veils, white dresses, white aprons, white socks.

"It represents the purity of heaven," Ms. Rhoads said.

Amish families are very large and very close, with older children taking responsibility for younger ones. Naomi, she said, was the only girl among seven siblings. Marian was one of six Fisher children, three of whom had been involved in the attack at the school, she said.

The stoic faces the Amish present to the outside world gave way to open grief in their homes, she said. "They are human, they are crying, they are devastated."

Yet they profess certainty of a hope greater than their grief. "They have peace because their daughters are in heaven and they have forgiven the shooter," she said.

According to Ms. Rhoads, on Monday evening a grandfather of one of the girls called on Marie Roberts, the widow of the killer, to express the forgiveness that is at the heart of Amish spirituality. Mrs. Roberts later sent a message to the local Amish bishop, asking permission to visit the community after the funerals.

"He was overjoyed," Ms. Rhoads said, adding that the bishop is a grandfather to some of the shooting victims. He said he had hoped that the Roberts family would come to visit, she said.

The Amish, who cultivate modesty and have religious injunctions against being photographed, have found the media attention disturbing. But there is a message they hope is transmitted by the same media that they will never see or read.

"The main thing they want to say to the world is not how awful this event is, but that their faith in God is strong and they have forgiven the shooter. They hope that other people throughout the nation will be drawn closer to God through their witness," she said.

An all-day community prayer service was held down the road at Middle Octorara Presbyterian Church in Quarryville, for those not invited to the funerals, but who wanted to mourn. State trooper Linette Quinn said relatives of some 9/11 victims had contacted authorities, asking where they could go to show support for the Amish families, and were directed to that service.

The Rev. Douglas Hileman, pastor of the church, said only 10 people -- none of them church members -- had attended. He believed many were stymied by roadblocks, and planned to have the church open again today.

Other Christians believe with the Amish that Jesus commands them to forgive as he has forgiven them, the Rev. Hileman said, pointing to the late Pope John Paul's forgiveness of the man who tried to assassinate him. Yet the Amish live that teaching out in a way that sets them apart, he said.

"To say 'we forgive' is so unheard of in many parts of the world. We get to see it firsthand," he said.

Boni Phipps, a volunteer youth group leader, was in the fellowship hall selling sandwiches that were purchased largely by news reporters. She was less perplexed at how the Amish could forgive than how a man who seemed kind and devoted to his family could commit such a crime.

"He wasn't an evil man, but he committed an evil act. I wonder if he didn't lose all sense of rationality," she said. "You have to really respect the Amish community for the forgiveness they showed. It's a real good example for us to follow."

Throughout the day, processions of as many as 50 buggies followed horse-drawn hearses along the road to the hilltop burial ground at Bart Amish Cemetery. Amishmen had dug the graves by hand the day before.

There would be prayers at the graveside, said David Reed, the midwife's husband. When the little caskets were lowered into the earth, men from the community would fill the graves completely before the families departed.

There has been much talk in the local community that the school where the murders occurred will be demolished, though local officials had not confirmed that yesterday.

Duane Hagelmans, public information officer for the regional emergency management team, who has served as a liaison between the Amish community and the media, said he was uncertain if they would take extra security measures in their remaining schools.

"They put things in the hands of God," he said.


Ann Rodgers can be reached at arodgers@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.


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