Death and grief are substances adults often struggle with. So how about children facing these same realities at a funeral? Should we take kids to funerals?
I say 'yes', and 'no'.
Part of this answer can be found in understanding our puzzling Western cultural view of death. Contrasted with many other cultures, such as Middle Eastern or Pacific Island cultures, the Western culture sterilizes death.
We use euphemisms to hide the word 'death' (e.g. they 'passed away'). We use coffins to hide the dead body from view. We use sterile and formulaic funeral services to avoid signs of grief. From this view, death has a certain stigma attached to it. It is something we don't talk about, especially with kids.
So from this cultural position many would say 'no' to the question of children exposed to the beast of death at a funeral. From this we develop many myths such as, 'kids are too young', or 'the dead person would not have wanted it'.
One of my favorite poems is Dylan Thomas' Do not go gentle into that good night, rage rage against the dying of the light.
He wrote this while watching his father die. He was urging his father, at the sunset of life, to rage against death. I love the rawness it brings about the emotion of death ending relationships.
The whole Bible storyline is really a meta-narrative on death and God's plan to conquer it. Understanding this gives us an answer to our question of kids at funerals.
So I say, take kids to a funeral so that they may know our story, the Bible's story: one of life, death and victory over death through Jesus. They are part of the family unit that is grieving and should share in this journey. Let's examine some key concepts in this.
Death is unnatural
Strange but true. When Adam and Eve were in complete union with God in that perfect world, death was unknown. After they rejected God's loving will for their lives (sin) then death appears as part of the result/wage.
Death is an unnatural imposter in God's 'very good' creation plan. Death in Genesis chapter 3 is both physical as well as spiritual. Our physical bodies die and we are separated spiritually from God's love.
From Genesis chapter 3 onwards, the Bible is about God's rescue plan to conquer death and restore the relationship back to peace. The good news is that Jesus takes the wages of our sin on Himself. Understanding Jesus' death gives meaning to our life now and into eternity. In 1 Corinthians chapter 15 this is explained in terms of conquering this unnatural imposter.
To live life to the full means to understand death (John chapter 10, verse 10). To understand death you need to know where it comes from: the wages of sin. And you need to understand God's rescue plan through Jesus' own death and resurrection. Explain this to your kids. Explain how the person died. And what happens after death. Explain that Jesus has conquered this death for us.
Jesus is called the first fruits and we follow. This is why Jesus explains we grieve at funerals BUT this grief will be turned to joy (John chapter 16, verse 20).
Death, in context, shows life and celebration. Taking kids to funerals is an opportunity to explain the core of the good news about Jesus.
Ways to do funerals
We all grieve differently. There are no rules or certain way it has to be done. Grieving is a life-long journey. The funeral is an important part of this journey. Sharing this with family and friends is important. Children are part of this family unit.
From my observations, here are a few ideas of how to involve kids in a funeral: asking them to do artwork, drawings etc. to bring to the funeral. I have also heard of children decorating the coffin with drawings, and sharing a story, song or Bible passage.
In saying this, some situations may be especially difficult. Each occasion should be one where you use wisdom to consider the best option.
If you are deeply struggling with the death of a loved one it may be helpful to find someone else to support you by looking after them.
Considering how the person died might also make a difference. Was the death from a suicide or serious crime (e.g. murder, rape etc.)? Or what if the person has no faith or knowledge of Jesus?
I don't have answers here. I am just pointing out the need for wisdom and clear thought. If it is a traumatic event for you, then clear thought and energy may not be free flowing. Maybe, in your deep grief, it is hard to focus on kids at this time.
Funerals are hard because we miss the person. But death is a reminder of Jesus' fulfilled promise—death has been swallowed up in victory. This grief will be turned to joy. This is the essence of the good news and something both adults and children should hear and witness through funerals.
Jeremy Dover is a former sports scientist and pastor.
Jeremy Dover's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/jeremy-dover.html