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Catholic Activity: Teaching About Death



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Mary Reed Newland gives suggestions for parents to help their children to view death as the door to happiness with God, rather than an event to be feared.


Death is not the happiest subject there is. But it ought to be. If it is not, it is because we are still too much attached to the world, and not enough attached to God.

Joan Windham (who writes very fine saint stories for children) describes St. William (the French St. William) and his attitude towards death in a way that makes death sound as delightful as it ought to sound, and it is quite the cheeriest kind of introduction to death for a child. It goes something like this.

After living a very busy, holy, apostolic life, St. William decided he wanted to go off to the missions. So he packed his bags, settled his affairs, and went to bed one night with plans to leave in the morning. In the middle of the night his angel awakened him and said, "Get up, William. We're going some place."

"But I can't," said St. William. "I'm off to the missions in the morning."

"Oh, we're going some place better than the missions," said his angel. "We're going to do something you want to do more than anything else in the world."

"You mean going to see God?" cried St. William. "Oh, fine. But of course, I'd rather do that than anything else, even going to the missions. What you mean is it's my time to die. Well, that's great!" And off they went to see God.

It is almost impossible for most adults to feel that way about death. The world doesn't think death is the best thing of all — even death and going to see God. The idea has been universally accepted that death is a calamity to be staved off at all costs and that none but the mentally deranged look forward to it.

Children, however, don't view things the way adults do; if they have been told that Heaven is the most wonderful place of all, that God is here, and life is but a kind of test with Heaven the reward, then they are quite excited about going there and death holds no terrors for them. In fact, they are so fascinated by the idea sometimes that, like a small four-year-old who invented a song about it, they are even shockingly cheerful.

Grown-ups think of death first of all as synonymous with one or all of pain, suffering, cold, stiff, coffin, grave, corruption, and, nowadays, the mystery story. In fact, the rage for murder mysteries probably has its roots in the fact that death has a morbid fascination for most people, as long as it is someone else who is dead. To think of themselves as one day dead is just morbid, without any fascination.

Until impressed with their elders' creepy notions, children think of death as synonymous with a place where you have fun all the time, never have to go to bed, can have anything you want, and are with Mary and Jesus and the angels and the saints. But because death is a combination of both sets of ideas (barring the mystery story trimmings except in a few rare cases), a little theological know-how does not come amiss. It is well to brush up a bit before the small fry start asking their questions.

"Can you have bicycles in heaven?"

In Heaven the soul's desires are wholly satisfied. One wants nothing because one has everything — in God. This is all that the soul desires, yet at the same time it possesses Him to the very brim of its capacity, so that its desire is immediately fulfilled. Now this is all very confusing for a child. It is possible, however, to arrange an answer that will be theologically correct and at the same time satisfy his momentary conviction that Heaven must include bicycles or else it will not be heavenly.

It is quite truthful to answer, "In Heaven, dear, you may have anything you want."

"Birthday cake and ice cream too?"

"If you wanted birthday cake and ice cream in Heaven, then ice cream and cake you could have."

Isn't it so? If you want . . . You see, he will not want ice cream and cake. He will want only God, and since he will possess God fully, he will want nothing. It is a slightly foxy answer but it is the truth. Heaven, for a child, must be seen as the essence of all that is good and desirable. As he puts the years behind him, it will be many things in turn, from a place where one has ice cream and cake all the time, and bicycles and tents and sailboats and an infinite number of party dresses and slippers, to (gradually) a place not necessarily so heavenly because of its furniture but because it is where one is eternally loved and admired and satisfied. It is all quite normal, and pleasing to God, Who understands best of all how a small child's mind works.

It is certainly a wholesome attitude. To translate Heaven into an unending choir session with nothing but Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus all the time (see St. Perpetua and St. Felicitas in chapter 9) is to make it sound hopelessly dull and to turn their hearts from desiring Heaven to desiring wherever it is one can have an infinitude of bicycles, tents, party dresses. The world promises these things if they will set their sights right, but the price is pretty high and they don't satisfy for very long. This describing, Heaven accurately may seem one of the accessories to the spiritual training of a child, yet it is one of the most important points of all. We are basing the whole undertaking on the assumption that they will want to go to Heaven. We had better be careful to make it sound like a good place to go.

"Mother, don't you wish we'd all die soon?"

Some Objections to Dying

It is discovering that we can't shove off on the next bus, even though Heaven is such a great place to be, that introduces complications. Why can't we all die the same day and go up to be with God? When will we die? Will it hurt? How will it happen? And the door is wide open for all the grisly answers to rush in and destroy a child's ease with death as a nice idea, a happy eventuality.

"I don't want you to die and go off without me."

"Who will drive the car if Daddy dies?"

"I don't want dirt in my mouth."

"It will be dark in the ground. I don't want to go in the ground."

We won't all die together unless God wants or permits it to be that way, because we aren't here on earth just to please ourselves and do as we wish. We are here to do special work God has planned for us and it is reasonable to think that Mother's work will be done before Monica's, and Daddy's before Jamie's. When the work is done, God calls us to eternity; even if the time has been wasted and the work left undone, we are called to eternity all the same. That makes for sober thinking.

As for who will drive the car, "take care of me," or whatever insecurity is suggested by a possible death, God will take care of all these things just as Jesus promised so many times in the Gospel that He would. The Polish folk tale mentioned in chapter 5 is perfect for putting thoughts of insecurity to rest.

About "dirt in my mouth," which occurred to Peter after watching a baby goat's burial one day, and how it is "dark in the ground" — well, we aren't going to be here to worry about those things. "The you part, the part that is sitting here now and thinking, putting the thoughts into words, that part isn't even there any more when your body is put into the ground. The you part will be off somewhere else, quite busy, and if you give any thought at all to your body, it will be just to look down momentarily and say, 'Oh, so that's where they put my body. Well, well."'

"But what does happen to your body?"

Well, barring the kind of coffins that guarantee preservation until the Second Coming, one will probably end up a sifted pile of dust and maybe a few bones (maybe in spite of the guaranteed coffins; I have often wondered how they can be so sure). That is what God said we were when He sent Adam and Eve out of Paradise; it's right there in the Old Testament. Nice to know it happens to everybody. Country children will explain earnestly, "You turn into a kind of fertilizer."

Well, don't you? It is silly to pretend you don't when you do. They mean no disrespect. They observe that the birds and small animals whose funerals they have conducted will disintegrate in time, and they will happen on the old bones of a cow now and then (last year the skull of a cow in our woods, with moss and ground pine growing out of it — all quite beautiful) and it seems good and right and as it should be.

The great excitement is discovering that God will put it all back together one day and that it will be whole and sound and full of beauty. That, for instance, removes the shock of realizing how many members of our society today are amputees. If children worry about such things (and many times they do), it helps a lot to learn that out of a universal respect for the human body, all limbs removed in hospital amputations are properly buried (those of Catholics in consecrated ground) and not just haphazardly disposed of. This may sound like really going out of the way to look for trouble, but wait until a child asks you: "What happened to the man's leg after they cut it off?" You will be quite happy to be able to tell him what probably did happen to it, and add that it is a nice thing to do with a leg because God made it and people must be respectful of God's handiwork. The mental picture of a lovely new leg winging its way back to join its body on the Last Day leaves everyone quite content.

Suicide and Murder

There are other aspects of death even more distressing than corruption, and they can hardly be missed by any child old enough to read the headlines. Suicide, for one. Suicide is a serious sin because God has a special time for us to die and until that day we are supposed to keep working away at the things He wants done.

But suppose someone does kill himself? If it is such a serious sin, does he go to hell? How to answer that one and not be guilty of consigning souls to hell on our own initiative? If suicide, by definition, is to be treated as the greatest of all sins of despair because it is a sin against hope, a sin against God's mercy, how do you explain it to a child so that you leave the judging to God, yet not take the mortal out of mortal sin? The answer is fairly obvious to an adult but not so to a child. God alone can judge whether the person who killed himself really meant to break the Divine law, really understood what he was doing. It is not necessary that we know. It is only necessary that we hope. We hope for the soul self-dispatched into eternity and pray for it with special charity.

There is all the difference in the world between sentimentality for the dead and Christian hope. Sentimentality is first cousin to a kind of blindness in which adults murmur to other adults that still other adults have "gone to Heaven" as soon as they die. It is far wiser to remember the possibility of Purgatory and pray like mad. No Catholic child who has studied as far as Purgatory in the catechism, or had it explained at home (and it can be explained reasonably to a four- or five-year-old), is going to be offended at the possibility that some soul near and dear to him does not get to Heaven immediately. It is unnecessary to make an exception because a beloved grandmother, for example, has died, and the parents think the child needs the security of thinking she is in Heaven. The Church gives her children security when she provides the sacrament for the dying, the great reparative value of the Mass, and prayers for the dead. To allow children to believe fuzzy half-truths when they are little, then try to substitute the blunt reality of Purgatory later, is risking their never taking seriously the necessity of reparation for sin. Too many times such sentimentality results in families' not warning their loved ones of impending death while there is time to prepare for it, not calling a priest and availing them of the last great mercy before they must meet God face to face. "We didn't want to frighten him. . . ." And a soul is allowed to slip out of life unprepared. Children must learn the necessity of the soul's impeccability before it meets God forever in Heaven.

So, in the matter of suicide, it is not prudent to let sentimentality take the sting out of the sin, not even in the minds of children. Out of Christian hope and charity, we can pray for the souls of those who have killed themselves, begging God to purify them speedily if they should be in Purgatory. All of this will come up if ever a child asks about suicide. Several years ago a suicide took place not far from where we live, and the subject had to be wrung dry before the children would let it rest.

Murder is an ugly word, but it's right there on the front page of the paper. As soon as a child learns to read, he asks about it. Most of all, children are scandalized to think God would let it happen, especially to innocent people. It is hard even for grownups to understand, but hardest of all when they forget that this life isn't everything and eternity is. It is man's bad will, not God's, which instigates such things as murder; never tampering with the gift of free will, God will not interfere with murder. Obviously it is not good to let children dwell on it, but once it has caught their attention, their questions must be answered or they will never forget it.

About the best way to take the worry out of murder for them is to compare it with martyrdom. The martyrs' deaths were murders. Our Lord's death was a murder. The difference between martyrdom and murder is that one who is killed for the love of God, defending His truth and His law, is a martyr. No one wants to die a violent death, but the saints who were martyrs were willing to die violently, after the example set them by Jesus. From our point of view (lacking the graces given to the martyrs), of course it would be much nicer to die the kind of death that isn't so messy. If not, however, it will not matter too much how one dies as long as he is in the state of grace. If he has tried to serve God perfectly with all his strength, then maybe he is a saint and so much the better.

Will Dying Hurt?

As for how badly it might hurt . . . We know that God will never desert us, that He will never permit us to go through anything without sufficient grace to bear it. We do not know what kind of death we will die, but we can always pray for the grace to die bravely. If we remember how much it hurt Our Lord to die for us, then we need not fear that He will forget to help us if dying, for us, should hurt. We should always pray for the grace of a happy death, but happy in this instance means that we will receive the Last Sacraments — not that death will be especially painless.

"But death is sad, and people cry."

It is sad to lose someone who is a part of your life, whom you have loved and depended on and whom you are going to miss. That is why even people who believe all these things about the blessedness of a happy death cry when they lose their beloveds. They miss them. But God helps them to be happy again. He helps them to look forward to the time when they will be together again in Heaven. To forget this is to accuse God of being mean when He finally takes someone you love, when all the time we know He must take them, sometime. It is to forget how really lavish He is with the joys He originally planned for us when He made us, the joys He so gallantly died to buy back for us.

Die? Of course we are going to die. When? Maybe tomorrow. Maybe even today. Who knows? The thing isn't to waste time worrying about when, it is to spend time as though we might be dying today, would be dying today.

"Oh, I don't want my child worrying about dying today."

Why not? And why worrying? If he knows God and His love, and loves Him back, if he knows about Heaven and is free from the gloomy nonsense with which other people belabor the subject, where is the harm in his considering that he might die today? No harm, and much good. Much good for all of us, because then we would stop postponing the good we mean to do, the ways we mean to reform. The real Christian is very cheerful about death. It is the doorway to Heaven and all of life is a hurrying up to it. It is the doorway to Purgatory and Hell, too, but as long as we are going to receive enough grace to be saints, the thing to do is try. Let's not dampen the high spirits of the young. Just as they think it is going to be easy to be saints (and, really, in their secret hearts they do think so), so they are sure they will go to Heaven. They just have to.

Activity Source: We and Our Children by Mary Reed Newland, Image Books, 1961