Bodies, Rituals, Death, and Why the Trio Matters to Kids

January 25th, 2013

Last week I spent a fair amount of time on the phone with the media. A few nights prior to my conversations, two teenage boys went onto a lake to go ice fishing. They both fell through and drowned. As the community grieved these painful deaths, the community members waited on the shore of the lake while one of the boys' bodies remained missing for two days.

When asked why it is so important for people to have the dead returned to them, I was reminded of a story I heard several years ago. A young boy had drowned in a pond, and when his mother arrived at the scene, she dropped to her knees, unzipped the body bag containing her son, wept, and then took handfuls of snow to wash the pond gunk from his face. She removed a nail file from her purse to clean the dirt from under his fingernails. When she completed these tasks, she was able to rise from his body and returned home. Perhaps with a similar reaction, the friends of the drowned teens in Budd Lake when asked to respond to the recovery of their friend's body said they were "glad he was no longer cold." The body helps us move into our grief.

We live in a culture, I believe, that has a lot of hang-ups about dead bodies and how we care for them. People have emotional and physical reactions to how we should care for the dead and-to put it matter-of-factly-dispose of them. When I was a hospice chaplain, the hospice was understaffed and I found myself releasing the dead to the funeral homes on a daily basis (yes, I am well aware of the breach of protocols. Try telling that to the head nurse.). About thirty minutes after his dad died, a middle-aged adult son returned and asked us for his dad's watch. He wanted to take the jewelry with him, even though he had previously said to leave the watch on his dad. While the son stood at the nurses' station asking for it back, the nurses bickered about who would retrieve the watch. They were too "creeped out" to go get the watch off of a dead man's wrist, even though they had cleaned and prepared him for his family to see him thirty minutes beforehand. Their reaction seemed incredibly strange to me, but it was a very real reaction for those two nurses.

At Good Grief, we are a ritualistic community. We do rituals to start and end groups, rituals to remember, and rituals to build community. I think rituals are tools for transitions, learning, and building community. Now, if we look at the positive attributes of rituals and parallel them to our death rituals, I think we have some major deficiencies. If we think about our human need to recover our dead loved ones, our need to be reunited with them, and our need to know they are cared for with compassion and dignity, then I think we can safely say that death care is a part of our grieving and human experience. It's how we mourn, it's how we express love, and how we understand someone has died.

If we look at some of the traditions and trends around mortuary rituals, however, I think there are some important things that should catch our attention. There is an increasing trend for the dead to be swept away without first being seen by family and friends. We may be reunited with their urn at a service or we may simply know on which beach they have been scattered. While at the same time, many families continue to have wakes, which is a controlled and scripted practice—in my opinion—that creates a staged spectacle that falsely promises closure, forcing families to act as hosts rather than providing a time for intimate rituals, remembrance, and processing death.

For me, the importance of the dead comes down to this: children are tactile learners. They poke. They touch. They prod. When we are dead what remains of us acts as a tool to help the living understand that we have died. If we deny our children the opportunity to be kids and to interact with or explore the dead, as kids would probably do in another societal context, then I believe we are doing them and ourselves a great disservice. And, of course, I acknowledge that not all types of death allow for intimate interactions or rituals.

Nevertheless, I suspect we all agree that children should always be allowed to attend funerals and can opt out if they don't want to attend. However, I believe our profession needs to say more than that. I believe we should lead the way in facilitating how to transform death rituals for our children. Our current traditions are all recent phenomena, and I believe they fall short of being helpful and educational. What would be a helpful and healthy ritual for children to engage the dead, help them to understand from our dead bodies, and mourn? Let's ponder the question. Let's brainstorm and ask the children. I wonder what intuitive responses a child who has never been to a funeral home would say.

As professionals who work with grieving children every day, I don't think we should leave these questions up to stigmas, phobias, an industry, or complacency. These are really important questions, and I seldom hear anyone discussing them. In the same way that we try to resist fears around grief and the bereaved, I believe we must resist our communal disgust over dead bodies. Let's have the conversation. Let's be the ones to facilitate the change and have a voice now, rather than wait and fight the next death fad.

Originally appeared for the National Alliance for Grieving Children on 1/23/13

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