A long time ago, when Ant was little, our Parish Priest died unexpectedly on Christmas Day.

We explained to Ant that he had died, and she (at the age of about 4) said: ‘Is he in the kitchen?’ So we tried to explain again that he was dead, that he wouldn’t be saying Masss for us any more, but she interrupted impatiently. She’d understood that, but what she wanted to know was ‘Is he in the kitchen?’

We were both puzzled and amused, but our laughter meant that Ant wouldn’t explain her question. It took some time for the explanation to emerge. Apparently some time previously, the hamster at her pre-school playgroup had died, and the playgroup leaders had laid it on a piece of kitchen paper on the kitchen table, so that those children who wished to could see the body and say goodbye.

As this was Ant’s only prior experience of death, she naturally assumed that this was the normal procedure, and presumably expected the parish to file past Father’s body in the kitchen to pay our last respects.

In fact, we went to his funeral instead.

Since then we have had many hamsters die, and involved the kids in their burial, and we have had a few relations die, and been to their funerals. I would go so far as to say that one of the reasons we keep pets is to teach the kids about death, and the difference between the death of an animal, which is final, and the death of a human, which is not.

We live in a culture that hides death away. There is plenty of fantasy death on the screens we watch, but the reality is removed from view. Despite their wishes, many people die in hospital rather than at home surrounded by their family; and even when people die at home, children are often excluded.

I think that is not healthy. Death is where we are all headed, and is the gateway to eternal life. As it says in the Mass for the Dead (and indeed on my parents’ gravestone): Tuis fidelibus, Domine, vita mutatur, non tollitur: for thy faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended.

There is a long cultural tradition in the arts of the memento mori, the reminder that we shall all die: the skull in the corner of a still life, for example; in the liturgy too: every Ash Wednesday we used to be reminded: Remember Man that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return. Funerals were solemn occasions where we prayed for the dead, with a priest vested in black, rather than celebrated their life with a priest vested in white. We used to be exhorted to meditate on the Four Last Things before going to sleep every night.

We have put a lot of this behind us, possibly reacting to an over-emphasis that was not helpful – but I fear we may have over-reacted the other way and lost that sense of our ultimate destiny. Finally, we should all live our lives in the light of the four great certainties: death, judgement, Heaven and Hell.

So there’s a challenge for this week: how do we bring our kids up with a correct understanding of the transience of this life and their eternal destiny, without tipping the balance too far into a morbid disdain of the blessings which a loving God bestows upon us in this brief life?

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