Ernie's funeral

December 2nd, 2013
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Our family friend, 91 year old Ernie, died last month. We just attended his funeral. As I knew we were taking Olivia, I tried to prepare her for the event.

When I broke the news to her about his death, she didn't seem too affected. My six year old said she knew what death was (because of our fish), and said she was a little sad, but I don't think she fully understood.

A day before the funeral, I talked to her about what to expect. I told her funerals are a time to remember the people we love, and to say goodbye one last time. I wasn't sure if he would be in an open casket, so I said we might see him at the front of the room lying down.

Olivia nodded but I am certain she could not possibly understand what all this meant until she saw it. So the time finally came when we walked into the chapel.

At first, she wasn't scared because she's seen empty caskets before at Claus' mortuary. We put one out at our annual Halloween party. She pointed and exclaimed, "That's Daddy's casket!" (which is not something I like to hear even though I understand what she meant.)

After the sign in and pleasantries, we made our way to the casket. It was open. In my limited opinion, the embalming job was good, but people always look different when they're embalmed. They look waxy and not quite right.

Now I think it hit Olivia. She kept staring at him in the casket with a mixture of curiosity, fear, and sadness. She had never seen a dead person before.

I stood at his casket and thanked Ernie for being part of our lives and said goodbye. Shortly thereafter, we left. I didn't take Olivia to the burial, because I wonder if it might have been too much knowing that the guy in the box just went into the ground.

On the way home I asked her how she felt, and she said she was OK. She said Ernie looked like he was lying in an ice box and that he looked funny, and wanted to know why.

For the next three days, she peppered me with a LOT of questions about death, each answer leading to just more questions. She couldn't sleep that night, telling me she was afraid. She kept coming out of her bed for three hours after we tucked her in, asking to stay with me.

Maybe because I reported news for so long, or maybe because I'm a mortuary wife- I don't consider the subject taboo. Death is a part of life, and knowing it's coming helps us to appreciate our loved ones each day we have them. I try to find the balance between honesty and oversharing.

How would you explain death to a child?

2 Responses to “Ernie's funeral”

  1. Ken Conklin:

    Hi Diane, I think the way you handled everything was very good. First, you took advantage of a real-world event to use it as a "teachable moment." You began at home with some explanations to prepare Olivia. Then you did not simply leave Olivia at home, thus shielding her; but you took her with you to the funeral parlor to make sure she would see this for herself. You did not drown her with information she did not ask for; you waited for her questions and patiently answered them briefly but accurately. The fact that she kept asking more questions proves that she was very interested. The fact that she couldn't sleep that night is understandable and does not mean that the experience harmed her; only that she had a lot of feelings and thoughts to sort through, and a mother whom she trusts to comfort her and give her more answers if she asks more questions. The one thing I might have done differently would be to take Olivia to the graveside service and, if done at that time, the lowering of the casket into the ground and the tossing of handfuls of dirt or flowers into the grave (not necessarily to participate, but to observe).

    One of these years you might also want to take her to Manoa Chinese Cemetery for Ching Ming, especially if a Chinese grandparent could also go along. We in Hawaii are very fortunate to have so many cultures and religions being actively celebrated by their adherents, and publicly accessible to us all whether or not we have any genealogy or upbringing in them. But of course any particular culture is of special interest if it is part of our family heritage.

    You might also consider taking Olivia to the Bon dance at Kane'ohe Higashi Hongwanji (very near Jack in the Box), even though you have no Japanese heritage -- I mention it because its purpose is to honor the ancestors in an enjoyable, celebratory way and everyone is welcome to attend and even to dance. There are plenty of children Olivia's age who participate, some of whom are dressed in traditional kimonos or happi coats. I've attended for several years; it's always the Saturday evening nearest July 4. The service before the dance begins is also brief, interesting, and low-key. Unfortunately the big old wooden yagura is gone and replaced by a pole; but the last couple of years they've had a taiko.


  2. Rosette:

    yes she is scared to DEATH...you need to put happy t.v shows before she goes to bed so eventually she will forget...age six she has no experience...it will take time to get that picture of dead inside her head..it is like going to watch those scary movies on t.v...she has the post traumatic stress syndrome.


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