More than 1,000 gathered for Mennonite family's funeral

MARROWBONE — In a service that mixed sorrow, celebration and calls to salvation, thousands of people remembered the lives and mourned the deaths of nine Cumberland County Mennonites killed last week in a crash with a tractor-trailer.

Members of Mennonite and Amish congregations from several other states came to the funeral, sitting on metal chairs in a warehouse in this farming community that was the only place big enough to hold the crowd. Many of the men who came for the funeral wore beards and dark suits, while the women wore long dresses and white bonnets or scarves.

Eight wooden caskets, handmade by those who knew the victims, were lined up across the front. The youngest person who died in the crash, an infant, lay in a casket with his mother.

"It's just the saddest thing I've ever seen," said Jessie Crabtree, a Burkesville radio-station employee who has been helping the family.

Ministers who led the solemn service acknowledged the pain of losing loved ones, but also spoke repeatedly of their belief that people redeemed through the sacrifice of Christ spend eternity in heaven.

"Death is only a door to the other side," said Leroy Kauffman, bishop at the Marrowbone Christian Brotherhood Church, where those who died were members.

At least 3,000 people attended the funeral. Cars, vans and buses crowded Ky. 90 into the tiny town, where police, highway workers and volunteers helped direct traffic.

Crabtree, who works at WKYR-FM, said the community has embraced the families of the crash victims. Many have provided food, and dozens opened their homes to people coming from out of state for the funeral.

Tuesday morning the station broadcast an appeal for bottled water — small bottles, as the Mennonites requested because they didn't want to waste larger ones. Within 30 minutes, the station was inundated with bottled water, Crabtree said.

"The community's provided everything," she said.

Those who died in the crash were John Esh, 64, who built vinyl-sided buildings, and his wife Sadie, 62; their daughters Rachel, 20, Anna, 33, and Rose Esh, 40; their son Leroy Esh, 41, his wife, Naomi, 33, and their 2-month-old son, Jalen; and Rachel Esh's fiance, Joel Gingerich, 22.

Ashlie Kramer, a family friend from Franklin, also died in the crash. Her family held a separate funeral.

The wreck happened about 5:15 a.m. on March 26 as the Esh family and friends traveled north on Interstate 65 in Hart County, headed to a wedding in Iowa.

A tractor-trailer driven by Kenneth Laymon, 45, of Danville, Ala., plowed through the median from the southbound lanes and through a barrier of steel cables, hitting the van head-on before bursting into flames.

The wreck killed Laymon in addition to 10 people in the van. But two of Leroy and Naomi Esh's children — Josiah, 5, and Johnny, 3 — survived the crash in their child-safety seats. Family members are caring for them.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the wreck. Among other things, investigators will try to determine whether Laymon fell asleep, was impaired or suffered a medical condition that caused him to lose control.

Tuesday's funeral lasted more than two hours, punctuated at times by the cries of babies. The day had dawned cool and foggy, but after the sun burned away the fog, people placed fans in the open doors of the warehouse to cool it.

Ministers spoke with the fervor of a revival meeting at times, using the service as an opportunity to implore people to examine their own lives and get right with God to prepare for a death that can come without warning.

Kauffman wondered about the last seconds before the crash — some people in the van likely asleep, then suddenly a glare of headlights in the driver's eyes as death bore down.

"When the headlights shine in your face, if that would be your experience, would you be able to say the last words, 'Lord Jesus!,' or ... 'I wish,' and boom, it's over," Kauffman asked.

Kauffman and visiting ministers Johnny Miller, from Ohio, and Urie Kanagy, from Maryland, told the mourners their only assurance is to accept Christ as Savior.

"For His beloved ... there is no death," Miller said.

Parting with loved ones is hard, Miller said, likening it to tearing apart knitted fabric. But, he said, "We realize on the other side God is weaving a much more beautiful tapestry."

And though the magnitude of the tragedy is enormous, mourners can take comfort in their belief that God is in control, the ministers said.

"I believe God uses these things," said Kanagy, Naomi Esh's uncle.

For his part, Miller prayed "We don't understand, but we trust you."

Kauffman recalled some memories of those who died. John Esh was a devout, prayerful man; his wife had a meek spirit.

Leroy Esh was a practical, friendly man who passed out religious tracts. His wife, Naomi, had struggled with infertility before the couple adopted three boys, but was quiet and faithful.

Ann Esh visited widows in the community. Rachel Esh, fair and lively, was full of questions and had said she wanted to see a brother in heaven who had died.

Gingerich found it hard to express his heart, but was a fine young man who had grown in faith, Kauffman said.

But he chose to not say much about those who died because the patriarch, John Esh, would have wanted his death used as a way to glorify God, Kauffman said.

After the service, thousands of people filed by the open caskets as speakers broadcast a cappella gospel songs that members of the Esh family had recorded.

The nine were buried in the cemetery at the Marrowbone Christian Brotherhood Church. Before Tuesday, the only grave there cemetery was that of John Esh's son, Johnny Jr., killed four years ago in an accident while on a trip to the Ukraine.

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