When Death Leads to Life – a Guest Post by Shawn Smucker

I’ll admit, I have a writer crush on Shawn Smucker.  Don’t tell his wife Maile, but truth be told, I kind of have a crush on her too.  They are a powerhouse team, and I know this because without doing life together, I don’t think Shawn would have become a writer at all.  Shawn has inspired me and has been a solid resource for my freelance writing career.  He shares with a passionate and peaceful soul, and he is admirably authentic.

It is with pleasure that I was asked to share a bit of his story which beautifully ties into my own story.  Shawn recently published a book, My Amish Roots, and today he shares with you how his own roots began.  Death into life.  I love it.

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When Death Leads to Life


In 1898, a man by the name of Samuel Lapp groaned in pain as his relatives held him down on the kitchen table. A doctor from Philadelphia had arrived minutes before and stood in the kitchen, preparing his equipment. Removing an appendix at the turn of that century rarely ended well.


The doctor that no longer has a name pulled the small scalpel from his bag, hands shaking.  Perhaps Samuel felt the cold steel slide into his skin, or perhaps the pain he had been in for days was already clouding his mind. 

His blood ran out on to the sheets covering the family table as the intoxicated doctor cut him apart and removed the offending organ.  But Samuel did not survive the operation.  The exchange required for his appendix was his life – it fluttered around the room for a moment, then vanished into the cold December air.

My great-great grandmother Catherine, only 25 years old, sat in the back room with her three children: Anna, Benjamin and John.  A widow.  Her family surrounded her, hugged her, and wiped her tears.  The children sat there wondering what kind of a doctor brought this into the house.


* * * * *


Four years later, in 1902, the wife of a man named Amos King got sick:

After a few days of not eating, she felt weak and ended up bed-ridden.  Logically they would have called for the doctor who, upon further examination (and if the family stories are correct), would have noticed the greenish-grey membrane covering her tonsils.  Or, if bleeding had already begun to occur, the back of her throat would have appeared black.  As diphtheria settled in, she developed a barking cough, and her neck could have swelled up as wide as her head.

In the early 1900s, no cure or successful treatment for diphtheria existed: there were 100,000 to 200,000 cases each year, resulting in 13,000 to 15,000 deaths. Diphtheria was not a pleasant way to die: an obstructed airway made breathing difficult and coughing painful.  She probably spent Christmas Day in a coma.  I can imagine Amos splitting his time between his two children (Lizzie and Jonas) and the rest of the family, then going in to sit beside Katie’s bed, praying.  But the toxin spread throughout her body, and she died on December 26, 1902.  The day after Christmas. 

 Amos was 28 years old, a widower, with two young children.


* * * * *


Two tragedies, less than five years apart. Two people left devastated, reeling, with young children to care for. The way that death can sometimes stop life in its tracks is breathtaking.

Yet it is only with the death of the seed that the tree can grow.


* * * * *


Three years later. Amos and Catherine marry, joining their five children into one family. They went on to have six children, one of which would be my great-grandmother. Without the death of both of their first spouses, would I exist?

This is no comfort to Amos or Catherine, 110 years after their losses. I cannot go back in time and introduce myself, explain how their present pain will lead to my grandma or my mom. I cannot hug them, give them a tangible example, the flesh and blood result of their spouse’s death.

But perhaps this glimpse into the past can be a comfort to me in some future time of loss, knowing that even in death, life will somehow emerge.

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Shawn lives in Paradise, Pennsylvania with his wife, four children, four chickens, and a rabbit named Rosie. HIs most recent book,My Amish Roots, explores the roles of family, death, life, tradition, and legacy against the backdrop of his Amish ancestry. He blogs daily at shawnsmucker.com about writing, the strange things his children say, and postmodern Christianity.

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Comments 7

  1. Thanks, Brenda!

  2. Shawn great post! I can’t wait to read the book, esp after doing my own family tree digging this last summer and finding out 1733 my mothers side came to Lancaster…I had no idea I had Mennonite background. Silly California boy came home.

  3. You bet!

  4. I can’t wait to hear more about this Jason.

  5. That’s fascinating, Jason. What was her last name? Definitely something I’d like to hear more about.

  6. Just now reading this, and it’s something I needed to hear.

    “Yet it is only with the death of the seed that the tree can grow.”

    Thank you.

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