Pennsylvania’s Amish began to bury the victims of this week’s schoolroom massacre on Thursday amid renewed concern that their private, rural way of life was yielding to modernity.
The first funeral cortege of 37 horse-drawn carriages, driven by grim-faced, black-clad Amish, trotted through the main street of Georgetown. It was only a few kilometres from the school where a local, non-Amish milk-truck driver shot 10 girls aged six to 13 on Monday, killing five of them and then himself.
The procession was headed by a buggy carrying the casket of seven-year-old Naomi Rose Ebersol. She was shot by Charles Carl Roberts, who burst into the one-room Amish school at nearby Nickel Mines on Monday, tied up the girls and shot them execution style.
Three other funerals were scheduled for Thursday and a fifth on Friday.
Preparations have been made for a sixth girl to be taken off life support at a Hershey hospital and brought home to die, said Rita Rhoads, a nurse-midwife who delivered two of the victims as she waited for the funeral procession.
Four others remained hospitalised with gunshot wounds.
The victims’ families have forgiven the shooter, Rhoads said, in accordance with the traditionalist Christian denomination’s respect for the Gospel message of forgiveness. One of the grandfathers had visited Roberts’ family on Monday to convey that, and Roberts’s family is expected to visit the victims’ families after the funerals, she said.
Rhoads also said relatives of the victims told her that the girls showed courage in the classroom and that parents were glad they were not abused by Roberts, suspected by police of planning to molest the girls.
”They knew they were going to be shot, and nobody begged not to be shot,” Rhoads said.
The mothers and other women dressed the bodies in white from head to toe, in accordance with Amish tradition, a process that gave them a chance to grieve in private, she said.
The Amish, descendants of Swiss-German settlers, believe in non-violence, simple living and little contact with the modern world.
Pennsylvania’s Amish have been slowly leaving Lancaster County since the 1970s due to rising real estate prices, suburban sprawl and increasing tourism that threatens their privacy. Land prices have almost doubled in the last five years, according to the county’s property assessment office.
”It encroaches on their culture, it encroaches on their way of life,” said Donald Kraybill, professor of sociology at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, who has studied the Amish.
A few dozen Amish family leave Lancaster County every year, moving to quieter, less expensive rural locations in Indiana, Kentucky, upstate New York and western Pennsylvania, Kraybill said. Scrutiny from the world’s media following this week’s shooting may lead others to leave, he said.
Lancaster County, about 100km west of Philadelphia, attracts around 8,3-million tourists a year, most of whom come to see the Amish, said Cara O’Donnell, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Dutch Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Tourism is the county’s second-largest industry after agriculture and employs 29 000 people. – Reuters