Learning from Funerals

There are benefits to growing up in a family with few young children and much older relatives. I learned how to make butter from the milk of the cow living in the backyard of my aunt’s and uncle’s house. Unlike Mama’s electric sewing machine at home, I also learned to sew simple things on my aunt’s treadle machine. I worked better with the treadle; I could go slower and keep my line of stitches straighter. I also would run around under the pecan tree as Daddy and my brother threw a baseball through the branches to knock down the nuts. My job was to collect the pecans. Most of my relatives had these huge yards with room to run around. One uncle had a nice rocking chair next to an oil stove where he would rock this little girl to sleep with a story.

Some might not consider this a benefit, but other things I learned from my older relatives were lessons   about death and funerals. With so many older relatives, we would have a death in the family somewhere and a funeral to attend at least once or twice a year. These funerals were the closest thing to a family reunion that our family ever had. I was usually the youngest person at these funerals, although older cousins would come with their families. I didn’t think much about death; the funerals were more like parties.

I knew what death was; I was taught that when someone died, they went to heaven, where we would see them one day when our own turn to die came. Those big shiny boxes at the funeral held the body of someone I knew, liked, or loved. Sometimes the box would be open, revealing a person who looked vaguely familiar but not like the person I knew. I wanted them to look more natural, less like wax figures with makeup and Sunday dresses or suits I’d never seen them wear before in life.

These days, I sometimes wonder why parents don’t take their children to funerals. I know the prevailing sense is, “Oh, they’re too young to be exposed to something like that,” but are we really protecting them from something unpleasant – or from a reality that they need to learn about first-hand? And, not just from what they see on television, movies, comic books, or video games. Granted, death can be traumatic, and children do witness traumatic deaths up close and personally. Such deaths can scar a child for life and are far different from seeing an elderly relative laid out neatly.

Regardless of the intent to protect them, children are exposed to death and violence every day, albeit indirectly. Every time a favorite cartoon character is squashed, shot, falls over a cliff, or has a car accident, it is death. The character may pop up a few seconds later, and what has appeared to be dead really isn’t. Children and teens playing video games “kill” other characters or get killed themselves. Yet both can usually be revived by restarting the episode or using a particular spell. On television programs, they see characters killed in any number of ways. Again, the same actor may show up later as someone else on a different show. Did the person really die, then, in that first show?  Is death real? But what happens when the gunshot is fatal? 

Watching the Queen’s funeral this week, I saw Prince George and Princess Charlotte. I remember being their age when I went to the many funerals of older relatives. Many commentators said that the young royals were too young to attend at such an event, but I disagree. They had as much right to say goodbye to their beloved grannie as any adult. They heard the words of the scriptures offering hope and comfort, some of the hymns they undoubtedly heard in church on Sundays, and the presence of nurturing and loving family members around them. They heard people talking about their grannie using words they knew and had witnessed during her time with them. They also gained memories of her and what made her so very special. They will take those things with them as they grow and have their own families. They also learned that death was not forever. Undoubtedly, there will be reunion in Heaven. 

That is my belief and my hope. It’s what I learned from attending lots of funerals when I was much younger. Without that belief and hope, fostered by loving and supportive people surrounding me in confusing times, I might not have acquired that perspective. Still, it’s what comforts me with every passing. The thoughts of seeing my loved ones again keep me going. Thanks to those who taught me that death is nothing to be feared; it’s part of my faith. I believe God is loving and protective and that Jesus’s words about many mansions are to be believed.

Image: A Funeral, Frants Henningsen (1883), from the Statens Museum for Kunst collection, Denmark. Found at Wikimedia Commons.

Linda Ryan is a mentor for an Education for Ministry group, an avid reader, a lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, and retired. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter. She lives with her three cats near Phoenix, Arizona.

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