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How my 7-year-old’s first experience of death was deeply imbued with peace … and even joy

Godong / Robert Harding Premium
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Our accidental encounter with a coffin brought home the beauty of our faith

My son and I dashed off to morning Mass earlier this week with plans to hit confession afterward and have our souls tidy and nice for the beginning of Lent. We were second- and third-to-last in a rather long line, and after we’d left the confessional, we sat in the darkened church to do our penance. Father had apparently given me more prayers to say than he’d given my young son, so my little guy was soon fidgeting and squirming as he awaited me. I gave him permission to go light a candle in the back of the church.

When he came back (I had a long penance), he announced that apparently there was going to be a funeral because there was a coffin in the foyer. He reported that there was someone like a nun inside because there was a rosary in the hands and some sort of veil on the head.

I turned back and saw that indeed, people from the funeral home were arranging a casket. I told my son that we would stop on our way out to say a prayer.

I finished up my penance and we headed down the aisle toward the front doors. When we got to the foyer, I realized that from the vantage point of his height, my son had seen a part of the lining of the casket, which he’d mistaken for a nun’s veil, and the tip of the crucifix sticking up from the corpse’s hands. In fact, the person in the casket was a man.

I hoisted my son onto my hip so he could see, and then I started speaking about what we were looking at. It was the first time he’d seen a dead body (in fact, I’m not sure how or why he recognized the black box as a coffin in the first place), and I watched his face carefully as I explained that once our souls are gone, then our bodies get cold and stiff and look an unnatural color.

He took all that in calmly; he understands plenty about the animal kingdom from Wild Kratts and other such shows, so he recognized that the body was beginning its process of decomposing … that it was starting its return to ash, that phenomenon he knows we mark on Ash Wednesday with the crosses on our foreheads.

What caught my son’s attention is that my own eyes began to water as I reminded him that we could say a prayer for this gentleman … and that we could also ask him to pray for us and to say hello to Grandpa Billy for us. My son nodded at that idea, undoubtedly imagining two old gentlemen who’d been separated by several years and several states now making friends in Heaven.

“Welcome home, sir,” I prayed over the casket with a choked-up voice, as I both requested God’s mercy for him and, trusting in that mercy, asked his intercession for us.

I commend you, my dear brother, to almighty God and entrust you to your Creator. May you return to him who formed you from the dust of the earth. May holy Mary, the angels, and all the saints come to meet you …

As we moved on, something Benedict XVI wrote regarding another great season of the Church year — Christmas — came to mind.

The coming of Jesus isn’t a “fairytale for children,” the wise pontiff said. It’s “God’s answer to the suffering of humanity in search of peace. He will be their peace!”

My 7-year-old’s first experience of a corpse and a casket was deeply imbued with peace … and even joy. That’s what the faith does for us. There was something of the natural human sentiment of sadness (a vicarious sadness for the family, since we didn’t even know this person, and my lingering sadness at having buried my dad already 16 years ago). But all of that was in the shadow of the tremendous certainty that God himself will always be with us as our God, and that “He will wipe every tear from [our] eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, [for] the old order has passed away,” as Revelation 21 tells us.

The faith isn’t a fairytale. Heaven and the Communion of Saints and the Resurrection of the Body are real. We can accept that with certainty because the One who is Truth, the One who can be infinitely trusted, has said so.

Humanity suffers and we seek peace. We die and mourn our dead. But God is our peace. And he makes all things new.

I took my son’s hand and walked out of the church, grateful to be a believer.

“He took me in spirit to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. It gleamed with the splendor of God. Its radiance was like that of a precious stone, like jasper, clear as crystal.”

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