I was a teenager the first time I saw a body lying in a casket.
My grandma’s second husband, a man not related to me by blood but who had become like a grandfather to me, had died and we were at his funeral, the first one I remember attending.
I couldn’t look at the body. It weirded me out to see the shell of a person I’d last seen alive looking like he was sleeping. I half-feared he would open his eyes and sit up. Looking at him felt like an intrusion of privacy. The world spun a little and I had to leave the viewing area.
Up to that point, I hadn’t known a lot of people who had died. A great-grandmother I knew a little had died a few years earlier but I didn’t go to her funeral.
In the last 20 years, I still don’t know a lot of people who have died, but I’ve attended more than a few funerals.
Last week, my husband and I took our kids to one.
To me, he was a kind, old man at church. He didn’t say much. I’m not sure he heard much either. My husband had more contact with him. I knew his wife a little better. Though they were members of a church we no longer attend, going to the funeral seemed like the right thing to do.
There, I learned about his sense of humor. About mystery trips he would plan for his family. How he loved flowers and gardening and making yard ornaments. I thought he was just a barber.
Funerals fill me with regret.
In my 20s, an elderly neighbor I’d known my whole life died. She was a sweet woman who always had a kind word for my brother and me. She’d been a widow as long as I’d known her. I rarely thought of her as anything else. At her funeral I learned of her vibrant Christian faith. I had recently become a Christian. I wish I could have visited her and talked about her life and faith.
The stories she could have told me. Gone forever.
I’m driven by a passion for these untold stories, the seemingly ordinary lives of those who walk among us. I wish I could tell them all before it’s too late.
Whatever my lot, thou has taught me to say
it is well, it is well with my soul
The man’s family ended the funeral with this hymn, a tear-inducing testimony of faith. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard this song at a funeral.
A decade ago, I was a newspaper reporter, taking my turn on weekend rotation, which meant a visit to the county jail to check arrest reports for publication in the next day’s edition. It was a task I’d done before, not one I’d enjoyed, but I was comfortable enough being buzzed into the facility and hearing the door click behind me while I copied information off the reports.
This day was different, though. An officer met me at the door and assumed I was there to collect information on a tragedy I knew nothing about. He handed me a press release about a family of four who had driven off the road near the river and drowned in their van. I spent the rest of the night making calls, seeking information and photos of the family. It’s a story I’ll never forget, and I’m sure I didn’t do it justice.
Later that week, I attended the funeral. No one told me I couldn’t be there, but I still felt like an intruder. I sat in the balcony. I took notes on the service. Our photographer took photos before being asked to leave. I was certain I would be the next one escorted out. I listened to family members talk about the faith and togetherness of the four who died. I watched as four coffins left the church in multiple hearses.
And I remember the words from the hymn and how a grieving family in the midst of an unimaginable tragedy sang those words and meant it.
It is well with my soul.
This is what I want my kids to know about death.
That it is a part of life. That joy and faith can exist in times of grief. That life in these bodies does not go on forever. That there is hope beyond the grave.
We’ve taken them to weddings, baptisms and infant dedications, all sacred moments in the family of God. So, too, a funeral.
They didn’t view the body, but we talked about death.
In the bathroom of the funeral home, our 4-year-old son, the thinker, talked about the man who’d died. He calls him “the dad who gave us the bunk beds” because that’s how our kids knew him.
“Yeah, he died,” Corban said.
“Yes,” I replied. “And he’s with Jesus now.”
“And someday we’ll be with Jesus,” he observed.
“Yes,” I agreed.
“How do you get to Jesus? I wonder how you get to him.”
While that might seem like a theological question requiring an “ask Jesus into your heart” kind of answer, I think my son was thinking about the mechanics of the process. Like could a person take a highway to heaven or fly in a plane?
I simply answered, “It’s a bit of a mystery, isn’t it?”
He seemed satisfied.
Since my husband’s uncle died a few months ago, we’ve talked to our kids about death. Because we want them to know why people they’re used to seeing aren’t around anymore. The conversations got a little morbid for a while. They would say things like “We’re all going to die someday,” and my husband and I would cringe when they’d ask specifically about family members who were someday going to die.
It’s an uncomfortable topic, for sure, but I want my kids to be comfortable with death. Not morbidly fascinated or afraid but informed and hopeful.
Death is a part of life and it’s part of God’s story in this world.
They will read the Bible someday and read about death. They will someday learn that some deaths are more tragic and unexpected than others. They will attend funerals of family members, maybe even friends. They will know that there are limits to our life in a human body but that God promises eternal life that can’t fully be comprehended now. I want them to know that death is not the end; it’s a door.
We won’t have those discussions all at once. They’re only 4 and 6, after all. But we’ll take their questions as they come and continue to include them in the life–and death–of the family of God.
How have you handled this topic in your family?
When did you begin talking to your kids about death?
What advice can you give from your experiences?