I first saw the little boy about thirty minutes before the funeral was scheduled to begin. I guessed him to be six or seven years old. He was standing at the edge of the chapel, looking toward the open casket. As I watched, he slowly approached the casket where his mother stood looking at the body of her father.
“I thought you were with your dad,” the mother said.
“I was, but I wanted to see Grandpa.” His mother, tears in her eyes, put her arm around her son and together they looked at the man who each had known all their lives.
“He looks nice,” the boy said.
“He does,” the mother replied. “He always did. He liked looking nice.” She then whispered something to her son which I couldn’t hear. He walked away.
A few minutes later, I saw him approach again. His mother had moved away for the moment. A man the boy didn’t know was at the casket. They looked at each other, and then the boy said, “He looks like he’s sleeping, but he’s dead. It’s not really him anymore. He’s gone to heaven.” Having explained this, the boy rejoined his dad.
During the funeral service, the boy watched me intently as I spoke about his grandpa and of God being present with us even in moments of our deepest grief.
At the graveside service, the boy stood quietly beside his mother and dad. As we waited for others to join us, I noticed the boy trying to see under the casket and behind it. His mother gently reminded him to be still. He was, until I finished the prayer which closed the graveside service.
His mother’s momentary tears gave him the opportunity to slip from her side. He approached the casket and knelt to look under it. His mother spied him and called out, “You need to come on. You’re going to be in the way.”
“It’s okay,” I told her. I knelt beside him and asked, “What were you trying to see?”
“That’s where they’re going to put grandpa’s body. Right?” I told him that was right. Then, pointing to the bottom of the grave, he asked, “What’s that thing down there?”
“That’s the bottom of something called a vault.” I told him. I then took him around behind the grave so that he could see the lid of the vault. I explained that his grandpa’s casket would be lowered into the bottom portion and then the lid would be placed on top.
“So, the casket won’t get dirty, will it?” With that, he was off to rejoin his parents. He just wanted—and dare I say needed—to know.
In the course of my forty plus years as a pastor, I’ve seen children handled in a variety of ways whenever death touched their families. Some parents have kept them away. For these children, a loved one will have mysteriously slipped away. Some parents allowed them to come and, unintentionally I trust, have given less than helpful information. For instance, I’ve heard parents tell a child that the deceased “is just asleep.” Such children will soon wonder just how safe going to sleep is. I’ve seen parents force children to look in the casket when they obviously didn’t want to do so or were not quite ready to do so. Such an action is traumatizing for both children and adults.
Thankfully, there are also those wonderful parents who seem instinctively to know that children need to be around the funeral home and the funeral service. They need simple explanations, which require parents to listen in order to discover what children actually want to know. Answering questions they are not asking is of little help. Ignoring the questions they are asking is even less helpful. The little boy I observed may have said to his mother, “Is grandpa sleeping?” To which she may well have replied, “He looks like he’s sleeping, but he’s dead. It’s not really him anymore. He’s gone to heaven.” It was a good response.
One of the great values of children being allowed to participate in funeral visitations and services to the extent they desire to do so is that they get to see adults, particularly their parents and immediate family members, reacting to loss and grief. It is an act of modeling. A child sees his dad or mother weeping and learns it is okay to weep. She sees them weeping one minute and laughing another and learns that it is okay to be both sad and happy. Children learn to handle death in the same way they learn so many other things—by watching the adults who are responsible for their upbringing.
But aren’t some children too young to bring to the funeral home? Perhaps some are; but if children are old enough to miss the deceased and the deceased has been a central part of their lives, they are going to grieve and have lots of questions, whether they ask them or not. Being present at the funeral visitation and service affirms their place with their family. It may lead to more questions, but those questions will be better ones than the ones that may rise from a child’s imagination. Children, like adults, will try to make sense of death. If children are involved in the rituals that surround death, they have a better chance of making good sense.
More important than a child’s age is the manner in which they are treated by the primary adults in their lives. When it comes to approaching the casket or putting a note or some gift in the casket, children need to be allowed to determine their actions and set their own pace. This is one place where children of any age should not be forced to do what they do not want to do. It is one thing for a parent to encourage a child to come with him/her to the casket. It is quite another for a child to be forced to do so.
The little boy I observed just wanted to know. When he had his answers, he was ready to move on. I’m sure he had more questions in the days and weeks that followed; but because he was present and his initial questions were addressed, he left knowing that questions were okay.
We can’t protect children from the grief of loss that accompanies the death of a loved one. We can and should welcome them to share in our rituals of remembrance and grief.