Thousands gather 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 came from several other states and countries to attend the funeral in this farming community, sitting on metal chairs inside the former Carhartt warehouse — the only place big enough to hold the crowd.

During the service, 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.

Eight wooden coffins, handmade by those who knew the victims, were lined up across the front. An infant who died in the crash lay in a casket with his mother.

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

Those who died in the crash were John Esh, 64, who built vinyl-sided buildings at a small business about a mile from his church, 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 fiancé, Joel Gingerich, 22.

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

The funeral was attended by at least 3,000 people — many of the men wearing beards and dark suits; the women wearing long dresses and white bonnets or scarves. Cars, vans and buses crowded Ky. 90 into the small town, where police, highway workers and volunteers helped direct traffic. People came from a variety of states, including Florida, Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Tennessee to pay their respects to the Eshes. There were also people from other countries, including Canada and Guatemala.

Sherry Gore, of Sarasota, Fla., said people came from far away because the crash victims and their families were well-known. The Eshes traveled extensively and recorded several CDs of a cappella hymns.

"This is my loss. My friends died," Gore said.

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.

Kauffman wondered about the last seconds before the crash, which happened about 5:15 a.m. 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.

Laymon also died in the wreck. But two of Leroy and Naomi Esh's children, 5-year-old Josiah and Johnny, 3, survived. Family members are taking care of the two boys.

Kauffman said some people in the van were likely asleep, when suddenly there was 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 ministers Johnny Miller, from Ohio, and Urie Kanagy, from Maryland, told the mourners their only assurance is to accept Jesus 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.

Kauffman also 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.

Anna 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.

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.

After the service, thousands of people filed by the open caskets as speakers broadcast gospel songs 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 at the cemetery was that of John Esh's son, Johnny Jr., killed four years ago in an accident while on a trip to Ukraine.

It took nearly two hours to transport thousands of people to the cemetery a little over 2 miles away.

When the hearses arrived, it took 45 minutes for the coffins to be carried and lowered into the graves.

As about 20 solemn men began covering the coffins with shovelfuls of dirt, the crowd sang Amazing Grace, their mournful voices echoing across the hills of the small Kentucky community.

The group also sang songs written by John Esh. Many people who attended the funeral said they knew the Eshes through their music even if they did not know them personally.

Judith Stoll, from Tennessee, said that she was friends with the Esh daughters and that the Eshes had been asked to sing at the wedding they were traveling to when they died.

"They traveled a lot and left an impression on people," Stoll said.

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