I watched my friend’s five-year-old son peer down into the tiny grave.
Surrounded by a group of somber people in the small churchyard, the cold wind whipping around their ankles, the sound of sobbing and noses being blown, he was just curious to see what was in the bottom of this hole in the ground.
We were gathered to say goodbye to a baby who had died in her mother’s womb at just eight months old. An utter tragedy. The poignancy of the size of the white wicker coffin was heart-wrenching.
But this little boy just wanted to know what was going on. He quietly leaned over, peered in, saw the tiny coffin at the bottom of the grave, and then wandered back to hold his mother’s hand, looking reflective.
Should he have been taken or not?
This was the subject of an article I shared in my Facebook group last year and which generated a large number of comments. It seems there are many different opinions on this subject.
So here’s my take.
Whether you take your young son or daughter to a funeral simply depends on many factors.
I intuitively feel that in the long run, it is better to not hide death away from children full stop, but then as some of the comments in the group showed, being in the presence of someone who has died can be traumatic in and of itself. Whether it is more traumatic than not being there at all is, at least to some extent, dependent on the circumstances.
Age may be a factor, as may religious or cultural reasons as to whether a child should attend or not. These need to be respected.
But more than anything, the way the death and funeral are handled in terms of speaking about it will determine to a large extent the effect it will have on the child.
Susan said: “Personally I think it is absolutely necessary (to take children to funerals). My mother died unexpectedly when I was 10 and I was sent away the day she died until after the funeral and it was a huge mistake and the biggest regret of my life. I never got to say goodbye and for a long time, I kept thinking she would just appear and that it was all a big mistake. It has had an everlasting effect on me and I’m now in my sixties. If someone just disappears from your life and you haven’t had a chance to say goodbye as a child, it is very bewildering and distressing, much more so than attending the funeral.
I would stand at the lounge window and think she would walk along the road. And even though I knew she was in a coffin under the ground, I thought she was still alive and trying to get out. I think a lot more damage is done by not allowing a child to say goodbye than them attending a funeral which I think is a positive way to say goodbye.”
But then someone else shared:
“I recall sitting in the front row of the visitation on the night before my grandpa was buried. During the ceremony, the Rosary was said and it seemed like hours staring at his waxed body in the coffin. I didn’t like it and to this day, those feelings are the first that come to mind even though I had many other great memories with him.”
So what to do?
On balance, I think the more we are at ease ourselves with dying, death and grief, the easier it will be for our children to be at ease. They will take a lead from us, as they do in most things.
So if you feel uncomfortable about this subject, either because of people daring to think NOT to take their child, or because they strongly feel taking a child to a funeral is a good idea, it’s worth exploring a bit more.
So, what is your opinion about funerals, full stop?
If you have religious beliefs, the end of life ritual (commonly known in the Western world as a funeral) may have requirements that you follow, that have stood the test of time in that religion, and that you are already aware of.
If you are not religious, but spiritual, you might know you want nothing to do with a church for your own funeral but are not quite sure what on earth to do if not that.
Or you might think that the only alternative is having a humanist conduct your funeral, who will not include any reference to any religions or spirituality at all.
You might not even want (or be able) to contemplate the word ‘funeral’ at all.
And this is at the heart of the original question.
In Western society today, generally speaking, we shy away from the obvious – the fact that just because we are alive, we will also, one day, die.
In fact, the word ‘death’ has almost become taboo (although this, finally, is beginning to change).
In order to consider whether or not you might take one of your children to a funeral, you have to be able to contemplate death – your own or someone you love.
In order to do that, you have to face up to what kind of beliefs or attitudes you have about end of life and all that that entails.
And that is not easy. It really is not an easy subject to reflect on, which of course is why people don’t do it. Plus we are all so busy living, aren’t we!
But let me add in a little something to tempt you to explore further, assuming you have read this far.
Did you know you don’t even have to have a funeral at all?
It’s true. But not commonly known.
And even if you do know it, the impact of grief might propel you into engaging a funeral director, or having a funeral for a family member, simply because that’s been the way it’s usually done.
So you have to be prepared in advance if you think you may not want to have a funeral. That nearly always means being willing to have a conversation with your nearest and dearest.
And that’s why it’s a good idea to work out what you think about end of life matters well before you may need to know – so you can instigate a very necessary conversation.
So – what DO you think about funerals? Would you want one for yourself? Would you take a child to one? Please comment below and let’s hear how you feel about it!