by Kathy Stewart
used with permission
"Why do we throw water at her?"
"Does she feel it?"
"Why is everybody so sad?"
"If she is so happy to be with Jesus, why isn't she smiling?"
These were just a few of the questions my five year old asked at the funeral of a family friend last week. As I stood next to the casket with my daughter in my arms, I saw the cycle of life and death and the value of my faith from a new perspective.
As a lifetime Catholic, I understand the burial rituals that are meant to bring me comfort and peace. As a relatively new Catholic, my daughter is full of questions. These questions, through the course of a weekend, slowly transformed my initial understanding of faith into a deep appreciation of all the comfort that Catholic rituals can offer in times of sorrow. When I decided to travel to the funeral, I asked Bailey if she wanted to come with me. Rarely turning down a road trip, much less one to Grandma and Grandpas' house, she asked, "Is it a party?" "Not really," I replied.
Bailey lives in a very literal stage of life. She came home from Catechist of the Good Shepherd class recently and informed me, "God is my father, and my teacher says I should love him best of all." "That's true," I replied. "Then, what is Daddy?" she demanded. Life is about concrete answers for her.
Initially, I decided not to take her to the wake. I thought that I should shield her from viewing the body and eliminate all the questions that would follow. After all, this was the child who once asked her daddy as they drove by a cemetery, "What's that?" He explained that the place was called a cemetery and that it was the place where people's bodies were buried when they die. "Oh," she said, "where do they bury the heads?" I was convinced her young thought process would be overwhelmed by the realities of death. I was wrong. She taught me that death could be a celebration.
As I said, I did not take her to the evening wake. The next morning, though, we were asked to meet the family at the funeral home to be part of the procession to church. When we arrived, we sat down in the back of the funeral home and immediately, Bailey wanted to know what was going on up front. I explained that Susan's mothers' body was in that box, but Susan's mother was now with Jesus. Bailey wanted to see her.
We walked to the front. I picked Bailey up and we looked into the casket. "Why is she wet?" she asked, curiously. I explained that we use Holy Water to bless the bodies of the dead. "Does she feel the water?" she wondered. We talked about how Pauline just looked like she was sleeping, but she was really with God. She then wanted to know "why is she wearing that?" Pauline was dressed in a beautiful peach-colored dress. It took me a moment to realize that Bailey thought it was strange to see someone, apparently sleeping, yet fully clothed in her Sunday best. We again talked about only seeing Pauline's body there, that her soul was with Jesus. We stood near the casket for a moment longer and then went back to our seats.
The questions ceased , at least until we got back into the car. "Why is Susan sad?" I said that she was sad because she could no longer see her mother here on earth. "She can't see her anymore?" she asked. "No, not until Susan goes to heaven too," I replied. "Is Susan's mother sad?" she wondered. "No, she is happy because she is with Jesus," I replied. "Then, why isn't she smiling?" I smiled at this one. The thought of the deceased lips arranged into a grin was comforting in some small way.
The funeral service was uninterrupted by incident or inquiry. Bailey attends Mass regularly and has been to other funeral services though I had always kept her at a distance, sheltered from the reality of the funeral. Although she and most of the other small children in the church held their nose during the blessing with incense, she was quiet and respectful. When the service was over, we returned to the car and followed in the procession to the cemetery.
There, the gravestones were a new source of fascination. "All of these people have died?" she wondered.
"Yes, over many, many years," I replied.
"Oh. Are they going to bury that box?" she asked.
"Yes, but that is just Pauline's body. She is in heaven," I replied.
"She doesn't have a body in heaven?" she asked. I told her that Pauline no longer needed her body.
"Why?" she wondered. When I told her that when we are with God, we don't need anything, she asked, "Does she still eat?"
My sister fielded this one. "Yes, I would like to think she can eat anything she wants and never gain weight," she said with a wry grin. We then walked by some smaller stones.
"Why are these little ones?" she asked. "They are for children who have died, but most children don't die," I replied still wanting to protect her.
"Yeah, most children grow into grown-ups, and then they die," she replied calmly. We were making progress.
As I watched the priest perform his final blessing and the immediate family say their final goodbyes, I realized how differently I had approached this funeral. Gone were the sense of dread and loss that usually accompanied my thoughts about death. When I looked at death through the eyes of a five year old, I saw the wonder of this part of life and the satisfaction seeing all the details being tended too. I could see that God had taken care of all the details. I just hadn't realized it until that moment. As Bailey questioned her given faith, I found mine.
As the ceremony ended each of the children present was given a rose from the casket. This made Bailey's day. We went to a nearby school cafeteria for the funeral lunch where she spent most of her time lobbying for a piece of chocolate cake and doling out hugs and smiles to anyone who crossed her path. I watched as every weary person that hugged my little girl got a brief moment of peace and happiness that comes from watching the exuberance of youth. In the end, it was a party.