Every year around the celebration of All Souls Day my wife and I take our children to visit the local cemetery. It is a time to practice the Spiritual Work of Mercy of “to pray for the living and the dead,” but also a time to teach our children about the Corporal Work of Mercy of “to bury the dead.” Both are essential aspects of a Christian life and we try our best to impart that heritage to our children.
Few things are as interesting, or as surprising, as taking children (all under the age of five) to a cemetery; they have no filter and aren’t afraid to speak their minds or ask questions that might not occur to most adults.
First of all, small children don’t understand that you’re supposed to be “sad and gloomy” when visiting the graves of other people. There is not one ounce of sadness in their minds. In fact, they are always quite joyful when walking around the cemetery. They realize that these people have died and are no longer with us on earth, but they have full confidence that they are with God in heaven. So seeing the graves of other people (even relatives) isn’t sad for them. Even when they see all the little graves of children their age or younger and see the little trucks and cars that are placed at their graves, they are joyful.
“They are with God in Heaven,” they say and there isn’t a doubt in their mind that it could be otherwise. They know that if a soul is with Jesus they are happy forever and so why should they be sad at their passing?
My kids are also extremely interested in who died. As we go through the cemetery, they stop at a headstone and ask me, “Who died? What’s their name?” “Was it a boy or a girl?” They also enjoy seeing the different things that are etched on a monument and the various trinkets that are left around the grave. It allows the opportunity to experience a little of the story of the person who died and to imagine what their life was like, adding a humanity to the stone in front of us.
They are always very interested in the specific toys that are left at the gravesites of children saying, “We have that same digger!” One again, though, they aren’t sad that a little one passed away; they know where he/she currently resides and imagine the kid playing with the toys that are around their headstone.
Speaking about the afterlife, that brings a whole host of questions from little ones.
“Would kids have toys or be able to watch TV in Heaven?”
“Who would take care of me in Heaven if I died?” “Would Mama and Papa be there?”
“Are cats and dogs in Heaven too?”
“How old would I be in Heaven?”
Also, explaining the complex issue of death and resurrection is a bit confusing to kids.
“I don’t want to die because I don’t want worms to eat my body.”
“If I died, would I stay in the ground?” “How would I get out?”
They are also very interested in the graves of relatives. When visiting our local cemetery, my children asked where “Great Grandma was buried.” She died earlier this year and they were present at the burial. They understood that she died and were a little sad that she wasn’t with us anymore, but again they had a joyful confidence that she was with Jesus.
Visiting a cemetery also allows a parent to have a good conversation about death, mercy and praying for the deceased. We would pray Hail Marys as we walked about the cemetery and talk about how we needed to be good in this life to enter in the arms of Jesus. My kids also ask, “What about the bad guys in jail, are they in Heaven?”
It is a very good question, but one that I believe should always be approached through the lens of God’s mercy. I always tell my children when they ask that question, “Only if they refuse God’s love will they go to Hell.”
My children know there exists a Hell and that Satan lives there and there is no TV or toys and you burn alive for all eternity. They get the picture. Hell is not where you want to be.
However, we try to stress that only those who walk away from God’s loving embrace go to Hell. We try to convey that Hell is a choice and that God is not some unjust judge who sits there sending people to Hell that he doesn’t like or who isn’t perfect. God certainly is a judge, but his justice is always tempered by his mercy. We want our kids to know that God is a God of mercy.
In the end, visiting a cemetery with children is a great activity to do and is a perfect time for catechesis about the afterlife. They may ask very strange questions, but it is a time in their life when they aren’t afraid to ask what is on their minds. Take advantage of that precious time and teach them the beauty of Heaven and the glory of having a merciful God.