Playing It Cool While Talking to Kids About Open Casket Funerals
One of Jon and my most effective parenting strategies is playing it cool. It’s not always easy. Sometimes we are, in fact, freaking out inside, but it’s kind of like that classic example where your kid falls and they’re not really hurt but their response modulates depending on your response. If you freak, they wail louder. If you respond calmly, they move on to the next thing quickly. Yesterday was my uncle’s wake and midday one of my cousins thoughtfully called to let me know it would be open casket. And it occurred to me that I sort of assumed it would be (my family traditionally has opted for open casket funerals) but it hadn’t even dawned on me how to approach it with Laurel.
I was perplexed. I floated Jon an e-mail to ask him to think about it on the train ride home and otherwise turned to Twitter, where most folks recommended either not taking Laurel to the wake or taking her but steering clear of the casket. Which I totally get.
But it also made me wonder whether the open casket thing (and no doubt death in general) is more of a big deal for grownups than kids. I went to open casket funerals as a child and it didn’t phase me at all – possibly due to the fact that my parents had seven kids and they didn’t have time to make a big fuss about it with each of us, and partly because that was just the way it was. Very matter of fact.
So Jon and I decided that -- as with many things in life related to Laurel -- we would try to communicate calmly, not make a huge deal about it, and give her choice. So in the car, the conversation went something like this:
Jon: “Laurel, we need to talk to you about the funeral.” [We didn’t bother complicating things by introducing the wake terminology.]
Laurel: “OK, Daddy, what is it?”
Jon: “Well, we’re going to a funeral, which is a time for people to say goodbye and send good wishes to the person who has died, and also give support to the family members.”
Laurel: “I know that, Daddy.”
Jon: “Well, the thing we wanted to tell you is that sometimes at funerals there’s a casket, which is a fancy box used to hold a person’s body when it goes to the cemetery.”
Christine: “Like Snow White, except hers was glass on top.”
Laurel: “Right, Snow White. There was glass on top so the Prince could see her inside.”
Jon: “Um, right. So anyway, the casket will be open at this funeral and Uncle’s body will be in it – but at this point he’s just a body, his spirit left his body earlier this week when he died. Does that make sense?”
Jon: “People will walk up to the casket to say goodbye to Uncle, but it’s totally up to you if you want to do it. You can go up, or you don’t have to. Either way is OK and you can decide there.”
Laurel: “I want to see Uncle in the casket. [Pause] Hey, did I tell you about this game we played in gym class today? The teacher split us up into teams of seven and…[long monologue about gym class ensues...]”
So there you have it. We were calm and matter of fact and Laurel was calm and matter of fact right back.
When we got to the wake Laurel was a bit shy at first, then extremely excited to see her aunts and uncles and cousins (and not surprisingly disinterested in all of the strangers who wanted to pinch her cheeks and tell her how tall she was). She liked going through the receiving line (she went 4 times I think) and loved all of the huge flower displays.
And yes, she visited the casket. Five or six times. She was not scared or freaked out at all; she was curious…about how they got my Uncle dressed, about whether those were his real clothes, about why the bottom half of the casket top was closed, about why there was a huge flower display on top of the closed part of the casket, etc.
On the last casket visit, I asked Laurel if she wanted to say goodbye to him. She did. It was short, sweet, and simple.
And I think Laurel’s calm and cheerful response affected me as well. I said my goodbyes, sent my Uncle and his family peaceful and happy wishes moving forward in life and the universe, felt grateful for my life and the people in it, and left -- dry eyed and with a light heart.