On Monday morning, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, my family and I were at Mass. This is not unusual, as it was holy day of obligation. What is unusual, to some at least, is that we were not only at Mass but at a funeral Mass for a man I barely knew, and who my children knew even less. Why then were we there? Because he was a member of our parish and because it was the right place for us to be, kids and all.
I grew up in a family where death was a very real thing. Yes, I know. Death is a real thing, but to many people, to those who have never experienced the loss of a close relative, it can tend to be more abstract than the concrete reality it is. Not so in my family. We lost people. We lost young people. We lost our brothers and sister, our children. We felt the sting of death, and we also felt the comfort that came from the presence of those who cared enough to attend the wakes and funerals, even the ones we didn’t know. Oh, there were many friends, relatives, and neighbors who attended, but there were also people who came from neighboring towns, and people who had heard about it on the news. That a stranger would come to the funeral of a child he didn’t know personally meant so much to us. Dealing with the death of a child is hard enough. Willingly dealing with the death of a child you didn’t know when you are under no familial obligation is something else. It shows a certain strength of character, and a good amount of good manners. Most of these people had been raised in a day and age when going to wakes and funerals was just something you did, as a courtesy.
Today, there is a shyness around death that I don’t understand because I didn’t grow up it. People don’t talk about it much, unless it’s scandalous or salacious, of course, as in cases of suicide or murder. People don’t talk about it around their kids, because it might scare them. They avoid funerals, even if they know the person who died or know one of the deceased’s relatives. Funeral make people uncomfortable, probably because it reminds them that they might actually die one day. The thing is, they’re right. They will die one day, and avoiding death now won’t change that. Keeping children away from funerals won’t keep them from needing one of their own one day. What it will do is leave them woefully unprepared for dealing with the death of their loved ones as they grow up. If death is as much a part of life as breathing, then funerals should be as much a part of Christian life as Baptisms and weddings.
More than the psychological implications of hiding from death are the spiritual ones of hiding from mourners. When someone dies, their family is left behind to grieve their loss. When we, as fellow Catholics join them in their mourning we tell them in a very real way that they are not alone. We minister to them in a very specific way that allows them to remember their loved one by talking about them, by telling stories of them, by praying for them, and even by crying over the loss of them with someone else. We also have an obligation to comfort the mourning and to bury the dead. These are both listed among the corporal works of mercy, and just as with all the other works, corporal and spiritual, we need to practice them. And as parents, we need to set an example of practicing them for our children to follow.
And so, yes, I bring my kids to funerals. I bring them to funerals even if they didn’t really know the person that well. And I bring them to the funerals of those who are very dear to us. I hope that by doing this I am helping my children to understand that death is just another part of life, and not something secret and therefore scary from which they are too shielded. So far, they haven’t shown any signs of being traumatized, but they have shown several signs of coming to an understanding of the nature of death and the communion of saints. I’ll take that as a parenting win.