Wednesday, 25 January 2012

A Stylish After-Life

My children are disconcertingly comfortable with death. My nine-year-old will cross the street to examine road-kill and keeps a spider's corpse in a ring box in her knicker drawer. I once feared that her mind was macabre; now I tell myself it's  anatomical research for medical career.

Their ease in the face of the Inevitable must be rooted in the martyred saints who have gazed down on their childhood from church windows. Or perhaps it's a happy symptom of infant innocence; youth is more accepting of life's mysteries and less stilted by taboos.

We are accompanying my elderly mother through a cemetery. I am conscious that death is an impending reality for her and I talk distractingly of Jerusalem artichokes. My daughter paces insouciantly alongside us, eyeing the mossy tombs.

'When,' she suddenly addresses her grandmother, 'you're in your grave, I'll put all your make-up on it so you've got it to hand.'
She pauses, reflecting on what further comforts lie within her powers. 'Do you think,' she says, inspired, 'you'll be wanting your hairspray?'


Out of interest, are today's children too sheltered from death? And, if so, is that because we adults have less experience and, therefore, more fear of it than our predecessors? Would you let your children attend a family funeral? I'd welcome all views. 

31 comments:

  1. Children do seem to be more practical about death. My son would make similar comments to your daughter! He's been to funerals and he even saw his lovely Grandma laid out in her coffin when he was about 7 or 8 years old. Something I thought long and hard about as he's on the Autistic Spectrum. I wouldn't have been allowed when I was a child but it worked out fine for my boy.

    xx Jazzy

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    1. That's good to know. We took mine to a double family funeral last year and they were a bit shaken, mainly because they were inches from the coffins; but we thought it would help them understand the finality of death. Friends, though, wouldn't dream of letting their kids attend a funeral. Tricky one. Thanks for commenting.

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  2. My daughter was just 5 when she experienced her first death, a very close family member. I remember when we told her that this person had died and that she would never see her again she didn't really understand and was more upset that she would be missing school the next day.

    We let her see the body, at her request and she asked me 'Why is she still here & not in heaven if she's dead?' I explained that she would be taken up to heaven at her funeral and then we would see her no more.

    We asked her if she wanted to go to the funeral and she said yes so that she could say her goodbyes. It was fine and she is glad she was allowed to be part of the whole thing.

    I would say that it is always best to ask the children if they want to go. Explain in simple terms what will happen even if it's a slightly fanciful story just DON'T lie.

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    1. Sounds as though you dealt with it wisely and well. I read somewhere that children don't understand the permanence of death until aged about 10. Mine were desperate to go to the funeral (and to miss a day of school) but the older one found it more troubling than she'd expected. Remind me of the name of your daughter....!!

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    2. I might look daft but i'm not that easily caught out........!

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    3. I agree with you Singing Angel - honesty is the key. As adults we assume our children will be traumatised by news of death. Children see things differently and can take on board what we say. They will thank us later for being honest.
      My 2 young daughters have experienced death of close relatives and I have said that the body is just the shell - the soul has gone to heaven and we have to have somewhere for the shell to go therefore we have graves & the bonus is that we can go there and think of our loved ones.

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  3. A lot to think about here. I expect it depends on the circumstances of the death, the age of the child, and the child's character. There are so many variables that there can't be one right answer. Most parents know what is acceptable for their own children in any particular situation.

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    1. Yes, you're right. I think character is more important than age. We asked both of ours if they wanted to attend a recent funeral and had made arrangements in case they didn't. If they'd said no we wouldn't have taken them. I remember dreading going to my own grandfather's when I was 11, but that was more out of fear of seeing family members break down than of confronting his coffin.

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  4. I helped chaperone a class of yr 1s to the local church yesterday afternoon as they are doing a project on religion. The vicar took them round then church, answered questions etc. He then took them in to the graveyard and was explaining how old some of the graves were. I was amazed at the difference in attitude with the 6 yrs olds. There was lots of chatter about stepping on the grave and how they were standing on someone's head. Some of the children had no idea what the other children were going on about and were horrified when told that bodies had been buried. There were tears from several of the children at this point. One of the children asked what the small pots with flowers were for - the vicar said they were just the ashes of the people had been cremated - "what's cremated?" asked one of the children. We quickly moved on - it was not the time to explain that one!!!

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  5. Interesting question. Perhaps she is just starting to understand the concept of death and it fascinates her.

    The comments to her nan are quite amusing. Maybe she is developing a quirky sense of humour.

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    1. Well, she is familiar with her grandmother's attachment to her make up collection. Children reared with a church background are introduced to death very early. They are told they will return to dust on Ash Wednesday and learn the story of the Crucifixion. My then toddler was fascinated by a particularly gory Christ statue in a church we once visited. In a way, though, death becomes so familiar they don't really question what it means, whereas the kids mentioned by Mother on the Edge, above, were horrified at the new discovery and its implications.

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  6. My kids when to 6 funerals in 10yrs, great aunt, grandma, grandpa, great grandma, great uncle, & elementary school friend. My kids were under the age of 14yrs. They've read at funerals, sung, etc. When their grandfather died, two of them asked to miss the funeral, I said fine since grandpa had lived with us for his last 6months. Funerals are tough on kids, but it has not scarred mine either.

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    1. Funerals are tough on everyone. I think you did absolutely right. Noone should be forced to attend them, although doing so does help alleviate the notion that the deceased has just left for a while and will be coming back. The first sight of the coffin is a whole new grief always.

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  7. I agree with the previous commenter about not varnishing the reality. However, for me that means potentially debunking the whole "going to heaven" lark that the kids pick up at school. Although our children have yet to experience a death in the family (apart from goldfish), they have asked the question of what happens when we die. I told them the truth: that no one KNOWS, but different people BELIEVE different things, including that they go to heaven, but I stressed it's a belief, not a fact.

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  8. Sensible approach. We've discussed this too, because a couple of atheist friends tell their children that death is definite extinction and mine have questioned the differences and I explained that it was a matter of faith, not fact, although probably not as eloquently as you. Plus I'm biased!

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  9. My daughter is fine with death because I am always shouting that I'm going to kill that damned cat.

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    1. Yes, but when one day she's confronted with the carcass she might feel differently!

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  10. I'm an RS teacher and teach life after death to 13 year olds. They just take it as a fact of life - different views/beliefs/faiths but all of them see it with the immortality of youth - it doesn't apply to them and so they can think/talk about it without fear. One boy who had tragically lost his mother to cancer was the only one who was more introspective, so perhaps it is all about experience.

    My own young kids are very matter of fact about it - again, another stage in life; birth, childhood, marriage, kids, old age, death. They simply don't think about it as much or like we do. Ignorant bliss!

    Even when I am telling them off for poking around with electicity 'You could DIE!!' they don't get the truth/impact of what I am saying.

    A really interesting discussion.

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    1. I think many of us, even adults, feel invincible. I always imagine that if I travel in the car with my kids on a long journey nothing deadly can happen because it's impossible to imagine myself dying, much as I fear and dread the loss of those around me.

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  11. Wonderful! Now that is the kind of conversation kids can have. If you'd said that you'd have been castigated for insensitivity, but I bet she laughed along with your daughter!
    I took my children (4 and 1 at the time) to my Dad's funeral and I blubbed everywhere. I wouldn't have taken them if there was someone to mind them, but there wasn't, so they came. They actually handled it really well.

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  12. I worked in a hospice for several years and the view amongst the bereavement counsellors there was that children should be encouraged to attend the funerals of loved ones as a healthy part of the grieving process. Apparently unresolved grief - children not allowed to grieve for parents or siblings because adults don't like to see kids upset - sort of hangs on into adulthood where it can fester - you can tell I'm no psychologist but you get the drift. Ever since then I have always been fairly frank about death with my children - admittedly this is much easier if you believe in some sort of hereafter. I am less open with my now elderly parents although recently did tell my dad I didn't want him hanging around the house haunting us after death - he said given the infinite nature of heaven he thought it would be likely he could find more interesting stuff to do.

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  13. Slight addition to previous comment by me - just in case you are concerned I'm reading you blog in the wee small hours - actual time is 10 am ish!

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    1. Yes, I don't know what's happened to my times. Will have to do a technical exploration. Thanks for your points, though. It's a view I tend to agree with. Kids shouldn't be dragged kicking and screaming to funerals but if they're introduced gently to the concept of death at an early age, their understanding of it should hopefully grow with age rather than come as a terrifying shock later on.

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  14. We had a couple of funerals last year but felt Little A, who was then under two, was too young to attend. It would have been inappropriate to hear enthusiatic renitions of Iggle Piggles theme during people's remembrances.

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    1. I had to take my then 18-month old to my grandmother's funeral because it was far from home and all my relatives were coming too, but it was difficult, because instead of concentrating on the service I was in a terror that she'd make a noise and distract the other mourners. So yes, very small children best left at home.

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  15. I don't think I can add anything half as articulate to the discussion of death, but I just wanted to pop past to thank you for commenting on my blog!

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  16. I agree that children appear apparently sanguine regarding death and I have two that seem to relish the idea of a roadkill etc.Grim.BUT i did take them both to their greatgrandmothers funeral -we offered them the choice at 9yrs and 5yrs and they both wanted to say goodbye.
    The 5yr old was refreshingly matter of fact as befits that age of hwat would she be able to see when g-gran was in the box?her head,her feet?It gave us the welcome opportunity to discuss a significant event in our lives and share the sorrow of her death.

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    1. A valuable opportunity for at least it means they will be better prepared when an even closer relative dies. Thanks for commenting.

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  17. Our son, aged 11, recently wanted to go to the funeral of a friend's father, who had committed suicide. Our first reaction was to say no, but our considered reaction was to say yes. We were going, so he wasn't going on his own, and quite a few boys from his class were going too.

    As adults, we need some kind of way of saying goodbye, and I don't see why it's any different for children. I agree with what Kate Macaulay says about unresolved grief. Good point.

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  18. She is very thoughtful about your death.

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  19. I love it that your daughter said that, it shows how much she cares and will continue to care. I think that possibly there are parents who shelter their children too much from death. I took MP to the funeral of my best friend's mum last year when she was around 2, my only worry was that she would interrupt the proceedings - which she did with a rendition of nursery rhyme, but it didn't matter. We talk about death quite a bit in our house as my husband's mum died almost two years to the day before MP was born. It is really important to both of us that she is kept 'alive' for Ma Puce and that MP understands that my husband's mother did exist and now she is no longer on earth. We keep it age appropriate, but why hide it, death is the only true inevitability in life!

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