I grew up in a small Texas town. It was a tight-knit community, and families didn’t just know each other–they knew all about each other, family secrets and all. Our community lived, breathed, and died together, quite literally. When times were happy, everyone celebrated with packed-church weddings and enormous baby showers. When friends were grieving, we all mourned together, filling the hometown funeral home with flowers and tears and supportive hugs.
I can’t remember a time when I was considered too young to be a part of these milestones of life and death. Children were included in the important rituals of living, even down to visitation times in funeral homes, where we sat on velour couches in viewing rooms just a few feet from the casketed body of a loved one. We accepted death as another aspect of life on this planet, and we weren’t afraid or nervous about the funeral process. We just knew it was a part of being a community, even if it wasn’t the most pleasant part.
The first funeral I remember was my grandfather’s. I was five years old. I remember very clearly seeing him in his casket, watching my dad and his brothers and the rest of the family mourn him, and I remember having a revelation that day in my own child-like way: death hurts.
By the time I graduated from high school I had attended dozens of funerals and felt perfectly comfortable in a funeral home. I felt like I understood the rituals of death as they were practiced in our part of the country, and I wasn’t ever afraid or nervous about attending a funeral. It was considered polite, loyal, kind, supportive, and gracious to attend funerals–a way to show love to a grieving family and to honor the life of the one who had died.
When I became a mother, I knew that I wanted to raise my children in the same way. I didn’t want to shelter them from death or funerals. I didn’t want to set up funerals as something morbid or scary; instead, I wanted them to witness and grow to understand these rituals and this important part of life on earth. Here are some reasons why.
When kids attend funerals, they are better prepared for the death of someone close to them. Sometimes it can’t be helped–there are times when a child’s first exposure to death is at a very young age and is someone that they are close to. But, for most kids, there are other opportunities to take them to funerals that don’t have such a huge life-changing emotional impact on them. When they have experienced a few funerals and have seen what grieving looks like, they are better prepared to face the challenge of the death of a close loved one. They will know what to expect, and a lot of the fear of the funeral process will be removed.
When kids attend funerals, they are learning how to be a part of a community. Going to funerals isn’t anyone’s favorite pastime. But, when we go, I am showing the kids that sometimes you do things you don’t want to do in order to support someone you care about. It teaches them to respect and honor people and to be loyal and caring friends. It teaches them the joy of linking arms with other people and committing to laugh when they laugh and cry when they cry.
When kids attend funerals, they are presented with great spiritual truth. We’re all sinners. Sin brings death. We’re all going to die someday. There is a Heaven and a Hell. We need a Savior. All of these truths and more can be discussed and explained in the context of a funeral. When I was five years old and I realized that death hurts those left behind, I took one step toward understanding how sin caused sorrow, devastation, and death from the moment it entered the world. These may seem like heavy truths for a five year old, but why would we try to delay understanding of the Gospel?
My kids have been to a pretty fair number of funerals in their short lives. Most recently, we stood at a graveside while one caused the other to snicker at a terribly inappropriate moment. It happens. But, they are already accustomed to the funeral ritual and seem comfortable in their role as members of a community that grieves together.
I don’t really see any benefit to sheltering kids from death or funerals. When death is presented as a natural part of life on this planet, when the hope of Heaven is taught from an early age, and when community is held up as a for-better-or-for-worse concept, kids become better citizens, better friends, and more compassionate people. Their spiritual growth depends on a healthy understanding of death as it fits into God’s plan for humanity. So, funerals are fertile training ground that parents and kids should venture onto together.