How to Talk to Your Children About Death

Faux Lego Crematorium Raises Issue of How to Prepare Children for a Funeral

The 19th-century cemetery in Central City, Colorado.
The 19th-century cemetery in Central City, Colorado. (photo: Photo by Kevin Knight)

Popping up across the internet this week is a provocative children's play set: a Lego Funeral Set. The kit is an imaginative collection which includes a casket, a hearse, mourners, tombs, tombstones, cemetery workers, an excavator, and even a crematorium.

Granted, the slightly morbid building kit is not for sale; Lego does not market a funeral set for American children. The images that capture the imagination are from the Bestattungsmuseum, the “funeral museum” in Vienna's central cemetery. (The cemetery, one of the largest on earth, holds more than 330,000 tombs and graves, including the graves of famous composers such as Beethoven and Strauss.) The Bestattungsmuseum wanted to help their younger visitors to better understand what to expect when death touches a member of their family.

Every family is different, of course. The online response to the Lego burial motif has been mixed: Some people recalled their own childhood and talked about how they’d have appreciated the opportunity for creative role play when Grandpa died. Others believed that this was a wrongheaded approach to teaching one’s children about death, and instead recommended meaningful talks with Mom and Dad. But what, if anything, is the right way to teach a young child about death and the life to come?


What Should a Parent Teach a Young Child About Death?

Catholic News Service reported recently about caring parents John and Heidi Flanagan, who did their best to answer the questions of their three children age 6 and younger, and to prepare them for the funeral of a beloved family friend. “It wasn’t scary for them,” said Heidi.

...we took our time; we approached the casket as a family.... We were holding onto our little ones. We had a lot of time to kneel in front of her casket and pray... The more we can tangibly, from a young age, show that death is a normal part of life, it takes the fear and scariness out of it.

The Flanagans explain to their children complex ideas of how the body stops working while the soul goes to God, and how we hope heaven will be our eternal home. Also helpful, they explained, are dinner table conversations about the saints.

Besides helping children to understand that death is not the end but is a gateway to eternal life, parents can also help by preparing them for a funeral home visit. “Aunt Betty looks like she's just sleeping, but she's not breathing; she’s really dead, and she won’t be waking up.” And of course, children will appreciate knowing what to say, how to comfort a friend who’s lost a loved one by expressing their sympathy.

Perhaps the most important concern for small children is the fear that death will separate them permanently from the people they love. Parents should teach their children that they can talk to a departed friend or relative, and that they should pray for the deceased and ask for their prayers in return. This quote from St. Simeon of Thessalonica, which concludes the section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on Christian funerals, may be helpful:

For even dead, we are not at all separated from one another, because we all run the same course and we will find one another again in the same place. We shall never be separated, for we live for Christ, and now we are united with Christ as we go toward him ... we shall all be together in Christ.


Resources for Worried Parents to Help Grieving Children

Parents who want some help teaching their children about the end of life might appreciate the 2008 children's book God Gave Us Heaven written by Lisa Tawn Bergren and illustrated by Laura J. Bryant (WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House). God Gave Us Heaven tells the story of Little Cub, a winsome polar bear, and her Papa. Little Cub asks, “What is heaven like?” With tender words, her Papa describes a wonderful place, free of sadness and tears, where God warmly welcomes his loved ones after their life on earth is over. Little Cub and Papa spend the day wandering their beautiful, invigorating arctic world while she asks all about God’s home: How do we get to heaven? Will we eat there? Will I get to see you in heaven? Papa patiently answers each question, assuring her that “Heaven will be full of everything good.”

What will heaven be like? Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy and author of more than 100 books, answered 35 frequently asked questions about heaven in an article first published in Christianity Today. His answers are sometimes humorous, sometimes very serious, but always helpful. Why won't I be bored in heaven? What language will we speak in heaven? Will my dead cat be there? Find the answers to these and other questions on Peter Kreeft's website.