Children, Funerals & Death

    Children and funerals are a touchy and controversial topic.  Many are hesitant, reluctant even, to combine the two.  Choosing to keep children as far from funerals and death as possible.

    However some companies like Macquarie Park Crematorium and Eastern Suburbs funeral home are making a deliberate and conscious space for children.

    Introducing children to the funeral industry, and thus death, is sensitive.  I remember a conversation with one lecturer.  I told her about the Rookwood open day, as it was the kind of thing she might be interested in.  However, she said she wouldn't go as her daughter was recently becoming interested in death.  When reading a story to her daughter if a character wasn't in it, such as the parents of the main character, her daughter would ask if they were dead.  It was clear the casualness with which her daughter asked (and assumed) clearly made her uneasy.

    It should be noted that this lecturer is fairly open minded, and very hard to unsettle.  In one lecture she talked about making consuming breast milk so casually.  A topic which disturbs so many right to their core, but she compared it to consuming cow milk without issue.  So for someone like her to be put off by a child discussing death is quite telling.  Children and death are two things we do not want to mix.  However, this has negative consequences and is rather pointless.

    The first negative consequence I explore is awkwardness towards funeral and death.  To distance children and teach them that funerals are things to avoid makes them uneasy around the funeral.  All children see is adults avoiding discussing the funeral topic, and when it is brought up the adults act odd.  Adults are reluctant to teach their kids about funerals, and when they do they often entangle death and sadness.  One example is from the Rookwood open day at the crematorium tour.  A father was going through with his son who was about 9-10, just before we entered the back area he turned to the son and said "don't be scared".  Until then the child had been playing about, watching and understanding but not concerned at all.  Yet once the father told him to not be scared he changed, thinking there was something to be scared of.  A reason his father was reassuring him.

    In doing this kind of thing we teach our children to be scared of funerals and to entangle funerals with death and sadness.  Something children would probably not do naturally.  My lecturer was most concerned with her daughter being so casual about death.  We don't just accidentally teach our children this attitude, we do it deliberately.  We want them to feel as uncomfortable with funerals as we do, because to us this is natural.  To us it is natural and normal to not feel comfortable about funerals, so when we see children without this discomfort we think of it as strange and unusual.

    Yet the discomfort we feel about funerals is rather new, mostly coming out of WWI.  While I will discuss this in detail another time (if I ever get time) I will summarise it.  Before WWI death was mostly cared for in the home by the family, during the Great War this changed.  Between a decline in religion and an increase in medicalisation death moved to the institution and we started to pay others to take care of it.  During WWI individual mourning was seen as indulgent and almost inappropriate, deifying and belittling the death of the hero soldiers.  So a culture of silent grief grew and took hold, one was expected to carry on.  Many factors combined and death and the funeral were separated, distanced.  We learnt to be silent and private with this topic, so it left the public sphere.  These topics also became dirty, once out of the home and in the hospital death was a diseased thing.

    Death and funerals became things to not talk about, to be silent about and private about.  This is something we still continue, even though it is weakening.  But it is still very strong with our children, we want to keep them away from the topic as though it will spoil their innocence.  To not know death is to be innocent, much like we do with sex.  Indeed, sex and death are dealt with the same way with regard to children.

    Not only are we teaching an inappropriate awkwardness and avoidance of death, but this has another negative impact few realise.  There is very little room for children on the funeral.  If a parent wants to take a child to a funeral service it is tricky and awkward.  There is quite literally no physical space designed for children at most funerals.  Prams block aisles and pathways and cannot be gotten through seats, making the choice of where to sit limited to the back and side.  Then children themselves have nothing to do, quietly sitting still is an unnatural thing they have yet to learn.  They want to be up, about and doing.  So there is the parent, blocking pathways, navigating stairs and keeping children still.

    Most often this results in one parent going outside with the child, missing the service and thus unfortunately defeating the point and all the hard work.  Thankfully this is changing for the better, most notably with Macquarie Park Crematorium (MCP) and Eastern Suburbs Memorial Park (ESMP).  One thing both of these places have done is put out a box of toys.

The toy box at ESMP.
    In the ESMP funeral home arranging room there is a box of toys sitting to one corner.  So when parents are there to arrange a funeral the children will be happy and occupied.  It was clear that ESMP has made the funeral home open to children.  They are obviously welcome here and more importantly have been planed for.

    At MCP each chapel has a decent room to the side.  A room with a big window into the chapel so the service can be seen, but silenced so whatever sounds are made will not disturb the funeral.  There is a boxy of toys in the corner of each other these rooms, and a table and chairs.  Perfect for keeping the children out of the way and entertained while still being part of the funeral service.  But MCP also has a playground next to the reception rooms.  So during the wake, while all the adults can chat and eat the kids can play and be entertained.

    Both places are deliberately making space to encourage children and families.  To take children to these places is easy and accepted, the acceptance is the important part.  We should encourage children to engage with funerals, especially while they are young and do not feel awkward with the topic.

    One thing I would like to see is more active participation.  For a company like LifeArt to donate blank coffins to various schools (both primary school and high school) for art projects.  The children can paint and draw on them, decorating them.  Then submit the final product to a competition and have a fun day where everyone judges the best one.  I feel LifeArt is perfect for child and community engagement.  I am not fussed about it being environmentally friendly, it is the customisation that I like.  The ability to paint and decorate it so easily, these coffins would be perfect for children.

    However, I would have not talk of funerals or death.  Just make the event about decorating coffins without discussing or thinking about anything else.  Many (especially parents) might be put off by such an idea.  But it would be interesting to see happen, and I suspect would be received positively by the children, especially younger ones.

    Children see the world differently, they simply do not think the way we do.  So we should not impose our views upon them.  This only results in awkwardness for parents and people to feel uncomfortable about funerals as they grow up.  Instead we should try introducing the topic in a different way and let children develop their own understanding.  If the funeral industry wants to change how it is seen then maybe start with the children, like MCP and ESMP have done.


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