I’m referring to my Grandpa’s funeral; he died when I was in fifth grade. His services began with a “wake” which was held in his church.
What is a “wake?” These thoughts are from the Protestant perspective, or more specifically, a primitive denomination viewpoint. A wake is an old, old custom rarely seen these days. The original idea was that family members would remain with the body for a period of time and remain awake, watchful, and praying. A common time frame for this event was three days and usually the deceased remained in the home for those days. Originally, there was the belief that the body could be overtaken by an evil spirit after death and the people watching could prevent this.
A common thought is that a wake was intended to verify that the person had, in fact, died. But the practice of wakes continued to take place well into the 20th century – even though the idea of inhabitation by evil spirits had by then been widely rejected. Also, holding wakes occurred even long after the practice of embalming was well established. It would be impossible for an embalmed body to revive from a comatose or near-death state.
Grandpa and Grandma had given the church a building lot on their land so the church was just across the field. There was quite a tribe of cousins and we didn’t understand about a “wake” and we had no desire to sit in a church with a deceased person in a closed casket (even though it was Grandpa) and a crowd of emotional people. So, we were allowed to go “up to the house” and so we could get away from it for a while.
And things were fine until it got dark. Suddenly we all heard something – a noise we could not identify. Then the terror fell upon us. We had all been subjected to superstitious stories by Grandma when we visited so we were certain that what we heard was a GHOST—or maybe even Grandpa! We ran! Every last one of us! I remember running in the mostly dark down a rutted dirt lane. My sister was just enough older than I was that she realized we would have to run beside the highway if we kept going, so we cut sideways across the field to get to the church. The adrenaline carried us all the way there – though a bit slower than the cousins!
I don’t remember anything until the scene jumps and I am in the church on the day of the funeral. This particular denomination would always, I have learned since, have a string of preachers take their turn preaching at every service, even funerals. My Grandpa had been one of the preachers in that church, so he may have had the honor of a visiting preacher or four. They have a particular style of preaching that is very energetic, but hard to understand. The service was long, long, long. The drive to the cemetery was long. The graveside service was long. I only have specific impressions after the near-ghosting – short shadows of a few memories all shoved together.
Why did I want to share this with you? True confession, it is great of fun to tell, because it is kind of weird. Primarily though, it is a part of my history. The death of a grandparent is a hard, hard thing that many parents want very badly to shield their children from the experience. They want to protect their children from all real-life human death.
Our protectiveness drives us to seclude them from calling hours and funeral services and grave side committals. We fear that we are going to damage their tender emotional health by exposing them to the realities that each person must someday face in one way or another. I believe this approach is detrimental to the child.
That death is inevitable is without question. Today’s children will experience death less frequently than children of the past. Families are smaller, infant and child death rates in the United States are less than in the past, adults are living longer. By default, young people have less exposure to death than people of previous generations. The result of this is that they have a nearly non-existent framework for managing the process of death and the events following.
Parents will have few opportunities to journey with their children through this difficult time, so I believe they should be willing to walk them through each loss that comes. When a friend of the family or distant relative dies, this can be a time of learning and preparation for the youngster. When the parents process death maturely in the presence of their children, they gain a wealth of information that will help them throughout their lives. They learn basic things such as the social graces of how to conduct themselves in the funeral setting. They learn family culture as they observe the ceremonies that are chosen for the purpose of honoring the deceased. They also learn about more difficult tasks, including processing the emotions that refuse to be controlled or reconciling the ideas of death and their faith or after-life beliefs, or managing various aspects of grief.
I am sad when I see parents who do not understand that they have so few times when they can make an incredibly positive impact on the long-term emotional health of their children. By the simple act of allowing the child to observe them in the funeral setting and by speaking carefully and truthfully about the events, parents can set their children on a path of healthy attitudes toward death.
I encourage parents to include their children in the various ceremonies of a funeral event – calling hours, funeral or memorial service, graveside service. I believe it helps them to be encouraged to take a participatory role as this helps them to process their own grief.
Given all this, a parent may be overwhelmed by the prospect of presenting something that they, themselves, do not know all that well. We offer a resource that they may not even realize is an option. I am available to give tours of the public spaces in our facilities, and to talk with children about how to “do” the social things at a funeral, and to help them understand that they will be sad and that’s okay. During the tour, they will hear suggestions that will help them to process their grief and direct them toward healthy closure. A funeral home does not have to be a big scary place in their minds; I love to help children see that they can be comfortable and find closure through the funeral services.
My first funeral was not your normal sort of event, to be sure, and I have many impressions but few solid memories. But it taught me about some of our family culture, which as an adult I have come to value more highly, so I’m thankful to have been included. My own children, to this day as adults, have not experienced the death of a close relative, but I’m hopeful that they have a been instilled with the framework of how to prepare for that time.