Family Tragedy-Thawing the Ground for Burial

When my 92-year-old father Paul Peters was fifteen, his maternal grandmother Margaretha Sawatsky was killed in a tragic accident. The date was February 26th, 1943. My father’s uncle Frank Sawatsky was driving his mother to the community of Plum Coulee in southern Manitoba for a dentist appointment. Their car collided with a train at a crossing.

Margaretha Schellenberg Sawatzky my great grandmother (1873-1943) with her husband Franz Sawatsky (1869-1936)

My seventy- year old great grandmother was thrown through the windshield of the car into a field and died instantly. Her son was in the hospital for a long time but recovered. Few people had cars at the time but my father’s Uncle Frank Sawatsky did because he was an itinerant minister who served several small congregations and needed a car to go from church to church on Sundays.

My great grandmother Margaretha at her husband Franz’s funeral seven years before her accident. She is to the far left of her daughters and her son Frank who was driving the car when she was killed is just behind her holding a small child.

My father and his five sisters were very close to their grandmother because she lived in a small house on their farmyard in Gnadenthal, Manitoba with her youngest daughter. Her husband Franz had died seven years before after a lengthy illness.

My great grandmother was a very energetic woman and helped her daughter’s family so much. She milked the cows, made butter and mended. She loved to assist with child care and gardening and was an expert at designing and knitting all kinds of useful and attractive clothing items for the family.

My Aunt Mary describes her grandmother as light-hearted and cheerful. She was an accomplished accordion player and had a good musical ear.  The male song leaders at the local church sometimes came to ask for her help to learn the songs they would lead on Sunday mornings.  Margaretha loved to read, had a sense of humour and lived very harmoniously and pleasantly with her daughter’s family.

It was my aunt Louise’s eighth birthday on February 26th, 1943 and before she left for school her grandmother came over to give Louise a kiss and a nickel for her birthday. She would never see her grandmother alive again.

My Aunt Mary said coming home from school later that same day she heard loud heart-wrenching wailing in the kitchen. It was her mother and her aunts grieving for their mother. That’s when Mary learned her grandmother had been killed.

There were no funeral homes in those days so my great grandmother’s body was put in the summer kitchen outdoors and women from the village came to bath and dress her body. The men of the village built a simple wooden casket. Her grandsons carried her casket to the church for the funeral service and she was buried in the church cemetery.

My father remembers helping to dig his grandmother’s grave. Since it was February the ground was frozen and he told me they placed hot coals on the ground to thaw it. Then they dug as deeply as they could before laying down another bed of hot coals to thaw the next layer of earth. They continued this until they had a hole deep enough to bury my great grandmother.

Three of my aunts who vividly remember their grandmother’s death talk about the great sorrow the whole family experienced at her accidental passing. My Aunt Nettie says her mother and her mother’s sisters were inconsolable. 

My great grandmother had survived a revolution, epidemics and famine in Ukraine before immigrating in 1923, only to die twenty years later at a railroad crossing near her new home in Canada.

Note: Since I first published this a blog reader has sent me a copy of the article about my great grandmother’s death which appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press the day after the accident.

Other posts………..

My Grandmother’s Childhood

My Dad’s Cowbell

Station of Tears






Filed under Family

5 responses to “Family Tragedy-Thawing the Ground for Burial

  1. Arida Van Oudenallen

    For 16 years i was in Plum coullee with a girkl friend her brother llives there. Erwin Regier

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Robert Dyck

    The Sawatsky lived besides my grandpa peters….. I never knew the story…..thank you !!!


  3. Stan Schroeder

    I hadn’t heard of the hot coals to defrost the earth. Totally makes sense. On the flip side, my mom recalled putting the body on ice during the Kansas summer heat. I’ve read cultural history books about the body in repose in the house filling every room with the unmistakable stench of death. We have certainly sterilized the event of death since then.


    • Yes my grandfather told one of my cousins a story about putting a body in the summer kitchen in winter to keep it cool and coming back the morning of the funeral for the body and finding a rat had eaten the corpse’s nose. It certainly has become a more sterile event and an expensive one.


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