Last month, my Grandma died. She was 94. We were very close. Even in her 80s, she would travel with my Dad to our house for visits and events. When she was in a nursing home, we visited her when we were in town and my young daughter, aged 6, would cavort around the nursing home saying ‘Hi’ to everyone and decorating Great-Grandmas room with pictures and decorations.
When she died, it was not a question between my husband and I that the kids would attend the funeral. It was their first funeral – the first time someone they were close to (their Great-Grandmother) had died. My older daughter, aged 11, expressed some nervousness. The little one had a nervous tummy on the trip there – always a sign she is apprehensive.
I prepared them for what they would see at the funeral home – telling them where the casket would be, that it would be open and that Great-Grandma would likely not look like they were used to seeing her. They didn’t have to go up to see if they didn’t want to. I went through what we would do there, how long we would stay and how they should act. I reminded them that this is a quiet place but they should be prepared to be greeted by relatives they didn’t remember and so they should try to be polite. There would be no running or playing.
Funerals and weddings are the way our spread-out families get together these days so the evening was a family reunion of sorts. My parents were thrilled to see their precious grandkids, dressed all pretty. Big hugs all around. The kids, surprisingly, did not hesitate to go to the casket. They were not disturbed. Then they sat down with us. It must have been boring for them but they paid attention and were cordial with visitors. The elder smiled at those amazed at how grown-up she was, the younger tolerated with a smile Aunt Sarah pinching her cheeks. To pass the time, they discovered mints in my purse, made a trip to the water cooler and drew pictures in a notebook. All the time, being quiet and respectful.
I was amazed that none of my other cousins with small children brought theirs along but chose to leave them with babysitters. This felt wrong on many levels. Mostly, it seemed disrespectful to Grandma. One remarked that her son was more interested in doing something with his friends. The point about this occasion was lost. Unknown to them, we are a nonreligious family. The kids don’t go to church. But, I could not imagine them missing this event, regardless of the religious tone. There are some things you are obligated to do.
The next day, they went to the church, the cemetery and then the dinner afterward. The younger was Miss Social Butterfly (and got pinched out of sheer cuteness again by Aunt Sarah). From my parents to my second cousins, I received compliments about how wonderful they looked and behaved. It seems as if good behavior from children shocked people. I was extraordinarily proud as they tried to follow along with the church service and did not fidget once.
It’s not that hard to model good behavior for children. You have to start early, keep firm rules and reward them. Rewards of praise and hugs are typically enough. They understand that.
My children now know what it’s like to attend a funeral and a church service. They were also exposed to the religious-themed language and ritual that in which we are rarely involved. I would say this was a critical learning event in their lives that they will remember for MANY reasons. Also, I learned how valuable this was as a social ritual for our immediate and extended families. Even though we are nonreligious, I felt no qualms that I decided to include my children in this important cultural event. It also meant a lot to others who were there to see respectful children who said a dignified goodbye to someone they loved.