Respect for the Dead: Here’s a Way to Normalize It for Kids

“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.” (CCC 1690)

Albert Anker, “Kinderbegräbnis,” 1863
Albert Anker, “Kinderbegräbnis,” 1863 (photo: Public Domain)

“It's a beautiful day in this neighborhood.”
Fred Rogers

It was a special occasion. My wife, Nancy, and I picked up Katharine from school – just the three of us. Kath is 13 and the youngest of seven, so time alone with mom and dad is a rarity, and we marked it with a stop at Ritter’s for some ice cream.

Kath was still working on her brownie sundae as we started driving south down Main Street. She and Nancy were chatting away as we approached Jefferson Boulevard and the railroad underpass that runs past Mishawaka City Cemetery – a sudden inspiration! “Hey, we have some extra time,” I said aloud. “Let’s stop by our gravesites so Kath can see them.” They both agreed.

I knew Kath had heard about our plots in St. Joseph Cemetery adjacent to the public grounds – about how we’d made plans to take up semi-permanent residence there someday next to friends of ours (who’d previously purchased sites); about how I’d scurried to secure those spots before somebody else grabbed ’em. But Kath had yet to visit the actual location, and it seemed silly to pass up a providential opportunity to further my terminal agenda.

My what? Look, I’m not going to be bashful here: I want people to pray for me when I’m gone – and when I say people, I mean especially my kids and their kids, but also you and your kids, anyone and everyone – I’m not picky! I may be shooting for heaven, but I’m not about to give in to presumption about my final days, so I’m banking heavily on what the Church teaches about Purgatory – and that’s where you and my kids come in.

Here’s a quick sketch of what I’m talking about. When people die, we show respect for their inherent integral dignity by appropriate treatment of their mortal remains – which, by the by, also anticipates their bodily resurrection on the Last Day – but that’s just getting started. Beginning with funerals and burials, we can also demonstrate solidarity with those deceased persons through ongoing prayers and sacrifices on their behalf – a spiritual work of mercy. “From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them,” reads the Catechism, “so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God” (CCC 1032). Thus, as much as I appreciate your prayers now, I’ll especially appreciate them then (whenever then happens) and beyond. The same goes for my wife, if you please, and our friends. We’ll take all the prayers we can get.

What’s more, we’ll be praying for you – at least, that’s the idea. In the whole wild configuration of the Communion of Saints, we all end up praying and serving each other on all sides of the grave. The saints triumphant in heaven pray for us living on earth, and we, the church militant, can join the saints in praying for our departed forebears – the church suffering on the way to full enjoyment of heaven. Those in Purgatory, in turn, pray for us still fighting the good fight in this life, and we reinforce that mutual support when we physically visit their memorials. “Through the practice of burying the dead in cemeteries, in churches or their environs,” says the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Christian tradition has upheld the relationship between the living and the dead” (ARCC 3). Can there be a better way to underscore that relationship than dropping by their final resting places for a spell?

But how to foster that perspective in a world that shuns death and shies away from anything that reminds us of it – that is, real death, particularly our own deaths, not the video game versions, or what we got used to on “Game of Thrones.” Sure, we go to family funerals, and even participate in graveside prayers on occasion, but by and large we avoid the whole topic, and we tend to give cemeteries a wide berth.

I’m guessing that’s especially the case for many younger folks, even those who ardently practice their faith. They’ll pray for the dead when it comes up in the liturgy – as it does every day – but it’s not something likely to float into their consciousness outside of church. I mean, eww, why be morbid, right?

That’s why I’m on a campaign to normalize death – for my kids, for my nursing students, for anyone who’ll listen – and I’ve been at it a long time. I could hardly do otherwise at home, at least indirectly, for I used to work as an oncology and hospice nurse. Aside from hearing about my work in a general way on a daily basis, my family would frequently tag along when I attended funerals for my deceased patients. These events engendered conversation about what we were doing and why – about funerals serving a cathartic purpose for the bereaved, but also prompting them to put their grief to work and begin interceding for the dead.

Now that my children are older – and I’m older – my terminal campaign has taken a more direct approach, beginning with the purchase of those grave plots. Next step? Bring the kids out there to see where we’ll be buried someday, and then get them accustomed to visiting and praying for those already there – which, hopefully, will translate into their praying for us on-site in the future. To make it normal, even natural. Dare I say…congenial?

I’ve certainly been trying to model this behavior recently, and I know Kath has heard me tell of stopping at our cemetery from time to time on my own – to pay my respects to one of those future neighbors of mine now deceased (rest in peace, Debbie), and, frankly, to just hang out.

Yes, you read that correctly: “Just hang out.” Our cemetery is a short distance from where I teach, so when the weather’s nice, and I have some extra time, I’ll dart in with a newspaper, set up a folding chair near our spots, and relax – why not? It’s hallowed ground, after all, well kept up, with a handful of trees and the rumbling of an occasional train nearby. When the sun is shining and the birds are singing, it’s pleasant, serene. I’ll smile and sigh, content to be spending time in the company of those I hope to meet beyond the veil.

Such is the vibe I hoped would resonate with Katharine as we turned onto the cemetery property and parked along the access road. It had been raining, so I got out first to test how wet the turf was. “Not too bad,” I called back to Nancy and Kath. “The trees caught most of it – the ground’s pretty dry.”

They got out, and we made our way to the clearing in the back row near the fence – our clearing, that is, reservations for two. Even before we got there, Katharine flitted from marker to marker, noting the names, ages, and dates, commenting on decorations and carvings. I drew her attention back to our little piece of real estate. “Here’s where we’ll be, Kath,” I said – she paused and looked down. “And here’s Mrs. Freddoso, right next to us.”

We crossed ourselves and started to pray. “Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord,” I said, followed by the response from my wife and daughter, “and may perpetual light shine upon her. May she rest in peace.” An Our Father, a Hail Mary, a Glory Be, and Kath was off to find more unusual markers. I nodded toward Debbie’s gravestone. “We’ll be back,” I said, grinning at the spontaneous pun. Then I turned to catch up with Kath and further explore the neighborhood.

It was such a fine day.