As the year dies, it is only natural that our thoughts turn to musings on our own mortality. For Catholics, Halloween is not only about pumpkins and trick-or-treating; it is the eve of the Feast of All Saints, followed immediately by the Feast of All Souls, days set aside for us to remember and pray for the dead.
As we get older it becomes harder to ignore the fact that every second that passes brings us that much closer to our own deaths. Children, for whom time seems almost to stand still so that the time between Christmases feels infinite, usually don’t think about the inevitability of death as we do.
But children will encounter death, some sooner than others, and how we prepare them for this and help them deal with it when it comes is important.
There doesn’t have to be some big moment where you sit your kids down and explain death to them. Better for it to be introduced early, before they can really comprehend it, as a natural process. You can start with what your kids encounter as they play–dead insects. If they’ve heard you talking about the fact that an insect is dead from infancy, they’ll always have at least a vague concept of what death is, which you can flesh out later when they have questions. Tell them that the insect got tired and old and its body couldn’t work anymore, so it was time for it to die.
When they ask questions about their own eventual deaths or yours, it’s best to reassure them by saying that they–and you–are still very young and it will be a long time before you die. There’s no need to muddy the waters at this point with discussions of death by accident or illness. Sadly, there will no doubt come a time when you will have to answer those kinds of questions.
My children had their first close encounter with death when my grandmother died. They were 16, 13, 12, six, and three at the time. They knew Mima well so they were definitely affected by her death and I felt they should be a part of it. We told the little ones that, like the insects, Mima was old and her body had worn out, but we also added that she had gone to Heaven to be with God as we all hope to one day. (I personally don’t think that it’s particularly necessary or useful to bring up the concept of Purgatory with little kids right when they are grieving the loss of a loved one.)
We took all the kids with us to the funeral home. The open casket was at the far end of the room and we let the kids decide whether to approach. Lorelei and her cousin Ella, who were three and five at the time, were interested and spent time looking at Mima. William, who was six, did not want to look at her and stayed at the other end of the room. The children also attended the funeral Mass and the graveside service.
It’s very important not to impose your own–or other people’s–expectations or interpretations on the grieving of children. They may not look as upset as you think they should look, but don’t make assumptions. When my dog was hit by a car when I was four, I was very upset, too upset to even talk about it. I will never forget an adult making the comment that it didn’t seem like I cared very much. So keep in mind that your children may need space to grieve, or they may need for you to draw them out so that they can express their feelings or ask questions. I was very impressed by a friend whose husband died when their son was about ten years old. He wanted to go sit with his friends at the funeral. Some people might have insisted that he sit up front with the family but she gave him the space he needed and allowed him to find comfort with his friends.
Many children’s first experience with death is the loss of a pet. My children experienced this for the first time a couple of years ago, when we had to put our elderly dog to sleep. Lorelei and William accompanied me to the veterinarian and we all supported each other. I was proud of how brave they were and how they comforted our dog through the process, constantly petting him and reassuring him with loving words. When kids lose a pet they will almost certainly ask you if the pet will go to Heaven. The best answer I’ve heard to that question is that when you go to Heaven and want your pet, he will be there.
Like everything else, children will learn more from your actions around death than your words. Do you talk about how you miss those who have died, or do your avoid discussing uncomfortable feelings? Do you pray for those who have died and encourage your children to join in? (That’s when you can explain about Purgatory!) Do you lead by example by attending funerals of those you know whenever possible and encouraging your children to come when appropriate?
My grandfather died when I was 13, and his was the first funeral I ever attended. For years I was uncomfortable with the whole idea of “viewing” the body, and dreaded going to funerals. But forcing myself to attend many out of a sense of duty and obligation over the past several years changed my attitude. In one tragic week several summers ago, a high school friend’s son committed suicide, the father of one of Teddy’s football teammates died in an accident, and the father of one of his classmates committed suicide. I took Teddy to the funeral of one father, and he accompanied me to take food to the family of the other one. Set an example for your children with your actions when death touches you, and encourage their participation, and they will internalize the value of these rituals and will not fear them.
This post is part of the Catholic Women Bloggers Network Bloghop. For more writing on this topic, click below.
What better day than the Feast of All Souls to write about a cemetery? I may seem a little strange the rest of the year but today I am on topic and I have a beautiful graveyard to write about.
You may remember that my last graveyard story was very sad, about a cemetery whose history is lost and whose inhabitants seem forgotten. But not all graveyards are like that. If you’ve been reading along, you’ll know that each location has its own atmosphere and its own story.
Hickory Creek Cemetery, located next to Mount Pleasant Church on Buttermilk Road in West Knox County, is a HAPPY cemetery. And it was a happy accident that I went there some weeks ago.
Emily and I were out walking at a park we’d never been to (about which more another time!) and we decided to ask Siri if there were any cemeteries nearby. She directed us to Hickory Creek, and I could tell right away that it was a special place.
For one thing, it has something living there, or at least hanging out, and I don’t mean a ghost! I’m sure you’ve heard of a junkyard dog, but how about a graveyard cat?
It was hard to stop taking pictures of this photogenic little fellow. Isn’t there something comforting about the idea of a cat sleeping cozily on your grave, or is it just me?
And then this happened:
Plus this is a well-cared-for graveyard in a beautiful natural setting.
Naturally, there were some broken stones. I’ve come to realize that these things happen with the passage of time. The oldest grave I saw in this still-active cemetery was dated 1801.
And yes, there were babies and little children:
This little girl died almost exactly 100 years before the little girl whose grave, above, lies in the newer part of the cemetery.
This baby boy got a larger than usual monument to his short life. This picture also shows one of the houses located next to the graveyard. If I were going to live next to a cemetery, I’d pick this one. And there’s that cat again!
Gone to be an angel . . .
Asleep in Jesus . . .
Someone decided to purchase a new stone for this little boy. Perhaps a brother or sister who still remembers and misses him?
Long epitaphs are a prominent feature of this cemetery. Unfortunately, they are hard to read even in person, so I hope you’ll be able to decipher even a few:
Detail from the above stone:
The rose may fade, the lily die
But flowers immortal bloom on high
Beyond the taint of sinful powers
Our son is safe in Eden’s bowers.
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
To live in loving hearts is not to die.
Detail from above stone:
Thy life was beauty, truth, goodness, and love.
I love the stone below and imagine that this old lady was much loved.
Couldn’t ask for a better epitaph than this:
Simple though it may be, the inscription below brought me to tears:
I hope I am imparting a little of the flavor of this place to you . . . it felt to me like the people who rest here lived good and full lives, that they were loved in life and are remembered in death. That’s why it felt like a happy graveyard to me. But there’s more!
This cemetery is also rich in history:
The place is simply teeming with Hardins, starting with this famous fellow:
Courtesy of Wikipedia, here’s the text of his memorial in full:
Born April 18, 1734 in Virginia of English Ancestry.
Died July 4, 1801, in Hardin Valley, Tennessee.
A strict Presbyterian, stern and fearless in discharge of duty.
Loved and trusted by his friends, feared by his enemies.
Major 2nd N.C. Minute Men, Salisbury District, 1775.
Captain Tryon Co., N.C. Light Horse, Cherokee Expedition, 1776.
In battle of Ramsour’s Mill and at Kings Mountain, 1780.
Colonel for Western Counties (Tenn.), 1788.
Lost three sons in Tennessee Indian Wars.
Member Committee of Safety, Tryon Co., N.C., 1775.
Member Provincial Congress at Hillsborough 1775 and at Halifax 1776.
Member General Assembly of N.C., 1778-79 and (from Tenn.) 1782-88.
Organizer State of Franklin, Jonesboro, 1784-1785.
Member General Assembly, Territory South of the Ohio, Knoxville, 1794.
For his military services during Revolutionary War and Indian Wars he received in 1785 from North Carolina,
3000 acres of land in the middle district, now Hardin County, Tenn. named for him.
Check out this gentleman below, one of the original Tennessee Volunteers!
Died in the Second World War:
Mr. Lovelace’s grave above gives me an opportunity to take you down the hill to the newer part of the cemetery where folks are still being laid to rest today. Now, this is one of those graveyards where all the names are recognizable to anyone who lives in the area–Lovelace Road, for example, is close by, and of course Hardin Valley is a large community. Some of the names I saw repeated over and over again: Bridges, Davis, Duncan, Fain, Grubb, Hope, Liles, Rice, and Williams. And the really neat thing is that those names are still turning up at the “modern” end of the cemetery, emphasizing the history of this community and the part these families continue to play in it.
This is a long post with a lot of pictures. I want to share just a few more of stones that I found interesting or unusual.
I’ve never seen this marbled effect before, but it’s pretty.
Here’s something else I’ve never seen:
Yesterday at Mass Father Haley told us about the Polish custom of gathering at the graveyard to picnic amongst the graves of dead relatives He described a daylong celebration, a joyful occasion. Hickory Creek Cemetery is just the kind of place I would pick for such a party.
For more of my cemetery adventures, visit this link.
November is a natural time to reflect on our mortality, when the religious, the secular, and the natural all join to remind us that fleshly existence has an end. The Catholic Church remembers the dead on the feasts of All Saints and All Souls, and many parishes encourage members to inscribe the names of their loved ones in the Book of the Dead to be prayed for throughout the year. Veterans Day often includes commemorations at National Cemeteries. And as the leaves fall and the days shorten, it is impossible not to notice that the year is dying too.
The year that William was born, I attended five funerals, and there were two more out-of-state relatives whose funerals I could not attend. We used to refer to that year as “The Year of Death.” In 2008, there were again seven–or was it eight?–deaths of people whom I mourned. I’m not going to keep count any longer because I have a feeling it isn’t going to slow down from now on. John and I were married young, and for years we attended weddings constantly. Then it was baby showers. These funerals are just celebrations of another sort, for another stage.
This blog flowed originally from my column on life issues. Death, and how we respond to it, is on that continuum. I have done a lot of writing on death this year. My very first post was a short tribute to my Uncle Charlie, who died of lung cancer in March. I went on to mention the Easter morning passing of Bob Dewine, a fixture at my church for nearly a century. I devoted many posts to the beating, drug overdose, and tragic early death of Henry Granju. Not long after, I wrote about my distress at the suicide of Darrin Owenby, who was only a few years behind me all through school. More recently, I remembered my grandmother on her birthday–her loss seems very fresh, although it has been nearly three years.
There have been at least two deaths this year that I have not blogged about. Birt Waite died just last week, unexpectedly from heart trouble at the age of 71. Birt was the husband of my mother’s very best friend since high school, Ann Kirkland Waite, who has always been like an extra aunt to us and now to our kids. I did not know until Birt’s funeral about all the charitable activities he was involved in.
The other death happened, I believe, back in March. My high school class was a small one–only 57 kids–and we have now lost four of them. Jose Zulueta was the most recent one. Born in the Phillippines, Jose joined our class at St. Joseph in 6th grade. Everyone loved Jose, who was always upbeat and kind, and judging by the testimonials at his memorial service–many from fellow ice skaters, as he realized his dream of traveling as a performer in Disney on Ice–he never lost those qualities. I wanted to devote a whole post to Jose but never did write it, so I will share some pictures of him below.
Whenever I attend a Catholic funeral–and I really do believe that we do funerals well–I always wonder how people who don’t believe in an afterlife can go on after a loved one dies. How can they really go on without the hope of being together again in the future?
“For just as God gives us loved ones and does not lose them in giving, so we do not lose them in returning them to Him. For Life is Eternal, Love is Immortal, and death is just a horizon beyond which we cannot see with narrow, earthly vision.”
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon them. May their souls, and all the souls of the faithful departed, rest in peace. Amen.