Of Funerals—and Children

Cabbages and Kings

We played church. We even played wedding. I don’t think we ever played funeral. Should children attend the latter? Some feel it is too much of an emotional strain on their tender hearts. Others disagree. Even going so far as to make the child’s attendance at funerals principial, invoking the doctrine of the covenant. Much depends, I would think, on the strength and character of the little ones. Some children can view a dead body more easily than others. Reactions among them vary, from stoicism to nightmares.

Some psychologists frown on involving the little ones. Customs vary with cultures and with the evolution of habits. My parents always included me when they attended the memorial services of their friends. And they made sure that I was witness to the funerals of my own friends. Looking back, I don’t think it harmed me. Indeed, I was impressed at an early age—when more children died at an early age—that death was part of life.

There was Henny, whose name was really Henry. He was a year or two younger and smaller than me. I loved it when my parents drove the small distance into the country to visit his parents. They were poor. They eked out an existence on 25 rented acres of corn, cabbages, tomatoes, and beans. Henny’s father was building a trailer he was going to pull to California and a better life. My father told him that the thing was much too cumbersome and heavy to pull across the mountains. Henny always wanted to “race me” and, though smaller, he almost could beat me (and he did, when I let him). Henny wore hand-me-downs. One day he suffered from a burst appendix and died. I remember looking into the casket and seeing Henny wearing my shirt.

Ted was older. And smarter. He was going to be a pilot someday. He interested me in making model airplanes. We would go to this wonderful store where I would buy kits, but Ted would merely buy supplies because he could design his own flying machines. There was balsa wood—light as a feather—propellers, and large rubber bands to wind and make propellers do what they were supposed to do. Ted received permission to fly our planes in church on Saturday mornings in the wintertime. His could climb higher than the chandeliers, while mine generally crash-landed in the pews. Like some people I know. Ted died of diphtheria. His parents gave me his leftover balsa strips and propellers. I thought I could see Ted flying close to the ceiling while the minister preached his funeral sermon.

Bob was the son of my father’s roofer. Summer times we played on the jobs of unfinished houses. One Saturday morning, Bob was too lazy to get up for breakfast. He ignored his mother’s calls. His little sister found her father’s pistol. She didn’t know it was loaded. She pointed the pistol at her brother and said she would shoot if he didn’t get up. He didn’t. She did. I went to his funeral too. Bob’s full name—imagine—was Robert Boyshot.

My mother died when I was eight. In those days, bodies in caskets were displayed in homes. My father’s business partner came over, and they embraced. I never saw men embrace before. People came over and patted me on the head and said, “Poor boy.” Neighbor ladies, and ladies from church, came over to serve coffee and refreshments to the visitors. There was a wreath on the front door, and my father wore a black armband to signify he was a widower. I wanted one too. Some of the ladies in church offered to take me off my father’s hands. The minister told me that angels had carried my mother’s soul to heaven.

All those losses left an impression on me and spoke to me, at an early age, of a life to come.

About the Author

Rev. Jacob D. Eppinga was pastor emeritus of LaGrave Avenue Christian Reformed Church, in Grand Rapids, Mich. He went to be with his Lord March 1, 2008. This column concludes his popular “Cabbages and Kings” series, which he wrote for 40 consecutive years. Watch for It’s All Grace, a collection of his best and more recent columns to be published in book form this fall by Faith Alive Christian Resources.
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