Grief, Death, Funerals

Death is clearly part of human experience, and yet children's experience of death depends heavily on their cultures' social customs and discourses surrounding death and funeral practices, beliefs regarding the afterlife, and norms of grieving. Any understanding of children's experiences with death must begin with the degree to which children are exposed to, or protected from, death and dying.

Exposure to Death

In many traditional societies, children were exposed to death on a regular basis, as mortality rates were often quite high. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, death rates among children in Europe and America were quite high: a third or more of those born died by the age of two. In contexts of such high child mortality rates, few people would reach early adulthood without having multiple siblings die. With about 10 percent of all women dying in childbirth, a noticeable minority of children also directly experienced the death of their mothers. Children in rural environments were also frequently exposed to the deaths of animals. Large-scale war, with its massive carnage among young men, contributed to the awareness of death as well, again for children and adults alike.

In contrast, where mortality rates are lower, children are less likely to routinely experience death. By the early twentieth century, the incidence of death in Western cultures began to shift dramatically, in ways that affected children particularly. Throughout the United States and most of Western Europe, the decades from 1880 to 1920 saw a rapid reduction in INFANT MORTALITY, from over 20 percent within the first two years of life to under 5 percent; deaths in childbirth also declined. However, mortality rates varied considerably across different groups in Western cultures, and continue to be high in many developing countries, meaning that many children still live in contexts of routine and frequent death.

The physical management of death also affects children's exposure to death. In traditional societies, death typically occurred in the home, as did preparation of the corpse for funeral rites, meaning that children would be routinely exposed to the process of dying as well as to the presence of dead bodies. The increasing professionalization of death management meant that death and its accompanying rituals increasingly occurred outside the home, in hospitals and funeral homes. Up until the late nineteenth century in the United States, most funerals and the preparation of the dead (e.g., embalming) occurred in the deceased's home, but by the 1920s death had largely moved from the home to the hospital and the funeral home. The timing of this shift was not uniform across countries, however; in Newfoundland, for example, people continued to prepare bodies at home, with little access to professional funeral services, until the late 1960s.

Apart from the physical exposure to death, the willingness of adults to discuss death with children and the ways in which death is discursively managed in interactions with children have changed over time in Western cultures. Until the early twentieth century, it was considered perfectly appropriate for children to hear about death from adults. In Puritan New England, adults routinely discussed death with children as part of a larger message of sin and the necessity of salvation to avoid eternal damnation. Children were advised not only of the inevitability of death for all persons but of the imminent likelihood of their own death, a message accurately reflecting the high child mortality rates but almost certainly instilling fear of death. In the Victorian era, death was openly discussed with children, but in a more benign context. Stories for children routinely included death scenes and references to death, often with an emphasis on the joys of heaven and the inevitable reunion with loved ones there. In the United States, the most popular reading primers, such as McGuffey's, carried these themes on into the 1860s. A "poetical lesson," from the 1866 Fourth Eclectic Reader included a poem entitled "What Is Death?" addressing both the physical and metaphysical aspects of a baby's death. While these messages were less frightening than the Puritans', they still served to remind children of death's inevitability and the need to live a blameless life because it could be so easily and unexpectedly snatched away. Consider the simple Christian prayer, designed particularly for children: "Now I lay me down to sleep… . If I die before I wake, Ipray dear God my soul to take."

By the 1920s, however, questions arose as to the appropriateness of exposing children to knowledge of death. Expert advice began to warn of the dangers of children's fears, including those of death, and parents were urged to use caution in their discussions of death with children. Using SLEEP as a metaphor for death was deemed problematic, for example, as it could cause children to be afraid at bedtime. Euphemisms began to replace direct references to death, and some purists even urged sidestepping confrontations with the death of PETS. Even the idea of heavenly reunions seemed too explicit to some, who were eager to banish all thoughts of death from the experience of childhood. It was best to encourage children to think of death as a remote result of old age; there was some hope that providing scientific facts would reduce fears of death for older children.

By the 1950s, a general silence had emerged on the topic of death in the United States, with some authors calling it a taboo topic, particularly in reference to children. David Sudnow's 1960s ethnographic work in two U.S. hospitals found that hospital workers made a significant effort to shield children from knowledge of death, both of other children and their own. Hospital staff avoided references to the future when speaking with dying children and adolescents, for example. Children's deaths were more upsetting to the staff than adults', reflecting the general attitude shared by both parents and doctors that death and children did not mix, a consensus that had emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Children's participation in funeral practices and death rituals also reflected this shift. Funeral practices themselves changed considerably over time and across social groups, but children were included in funerals up to the early twentieth century. No respectable funeral procession in the late Middle Ages was complete without a delegation of children from ORPHANAGES or FOUNDLING homes. In the Victorian era, wearing somber clothes or other signs of mourning became widespread, and children were included in the practice. Although funerals moved from the home to park-like cemeteries, which were often at a considerable distance, children were still in attendance. By the 1870s, death kits were available for dolls, complete with coffins and mourning clothes, as a means of helping to train girls for participating in, even guiding, death rituals and their attendant grief. In the case of newsboys, children even organized and contributed toward the funeral rites of deceased newsboys in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, to honor their lives and avoid the looming threat of a pauper's burial, as well as to express group solidarity.

The early twentieth century, however, saw a decline in these elaborate mourning rituals, and the remaining rituals often excluded children. It was believed that children should be kept away from funerals, just as they were usually barred from hospital sick rooms (even those of close relatives or parents). This stemmed in part from an increasing concern with children's vulnerability to emotional stress. It was believed that funeral rituals and contexts of great emotional intensity were too difficult for children to endure. Some countercurrents began in the mid-twentieth century, however, such as the hospice movement, which stressed the importance of a family context for the terminally ill. In addition, some subgroups in American society continued to involve children in highly emotional funerals. Certainly the death taboo with children in the twentieth century was not absolute, as children continued to confront death (both human and animal), but death was less explicitly and frequently discussed with children, and when death was presented, it tended to be in a less emotional and immediate fashion.

Emotional Responses to Death

Historians have debated the emotional response to death in the premodern period. Some once argued that adults, at least, became inured to death, so that it did not occasion significant grief. The standard adult "good death" (most frequently from lingering respiratory infection) did allow family members to pay respects to the dying individual, permitting any outstanding scores to be settled, and this may indeed have blunted the emotional impact for other family members, including children. Even where children were concerned, certain adult practices, such as reusing the names of children who had died and, in some places, not naming children at all for a year or two, suggest the impact of frequent deaths on adult behavior. Attachment patterns can serve to minimize grief: Nancy Scheper-Hughes found that Brazilian women facing a high child mortality rate distanced themselves emotionally from young infants, particularly those who seemed sickly, as a way of minimizing their anticipated grief at the infants' death.

But newer interpretations of premodern Europe, often based on diaries and letters, emphasize how deeply adults were affected by the deaths of young children, however common their occurrence. Expressions of lingering grief, often remembered into later life, and a practice of using children's deaths as the key markers in family calendars, suggest powerful emotional reactions, in part because children, dying of causes such as diarrhea, and inarticulate in any event, could not have the kinds of good deaths available to older adults.

Children's emotional responses to death involve more than just grief, particularly in those cultures that use the fear of death as a disciplinary and religious tool. Fear of death was actively employed in Catholic Europe as a means of keeping children in line and also of illustrating the dire consequences of original sin (the same theme emerged in Puritan society, as noted previously). Holy days like All Saints' Day, which commemorated the dead but which were also often associated with stories of ghosts returning and misfortune, could play a lively part in children's imagination. (Even in modern Mexico and Central America, children may be kept home from school on All Saints Day because of the risk of disaster.) These messages were clearly influential, as children were indeed often terrified by the prospect of death and damnation.

The gradual secularization of culture in countries like France reduced these death fears by the eighteenth century. By the early nineteenth century death became romanticized for the middle class in some Western countries as part of the new, sentimental current in literature. Many novels portrayed tragic death scenes, designed to elicit tears and compassion for innocent (often young, often female) victims, and some of these were available for children as readers. Children may have been comforted, as well, by the growing belief that families would be lovingly reunited in heaven, a theme in popular religious and romantic fiction and poetry, as well as in nineteenth-century popular songs.

As attitudes toward death changed, ceremonies became more elaborate and expressive, and children and adults were encouraged to embrace the emotion of grief, which was seen as a strong, family-uniting emotional bond in a time of loss. Many children, particularly girls, grew up knowing that sorrow and sentimentality over loss were an expected part of emotional life, a counterpart to love. Certainly the open intensity of grief upon the death of a child increased among adults. Diary entries portray a blinding sorrow, combining a sense of loss and a new feeling of guilt, indicating a belief that a child's death should somehow be preventable. Funeral markers for children became increasingly elaborate, in marked contrast to the bare mentions in family plots in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. However cushioned it was by the hope of heavenly reunion, adult anxiety about children's death inevitably spilled over into children's experiences as well.

Acceptance of grief declined in the early twentieth century, in part through a growing commitment to consumerism, which made both grief and death less popular than orientations more conducive to pleasure. Grief was increasingly reproved where adults were concerned, with excessive emotion seen a sign of psychological weakness and indicative of a need for therapy. Children's grief came under even stronger attack, stemming from beliefs that grief was particularly hazardous to children's psychological well-being. Parents were urged to sympathize with crying children but to keep signs of their own grief in check in order to minimize childish grief. Fictional representations also reflected this avoidance of grief; in contrast to nineteenth-century children's fiction, contemporary children's media presented death as graphic and gory but emotionless, with no pause for grief.

By the 1960s some reconsideration of the new antipathy toward death had emerged. A variety of experts urged that children were being harmed by having insufficient outlet for their real feelings of grief, and that they should be reintegrated with the rituals of death. Schools moved increasingly to provide therapy to students when a classmate died–another move to bridge the gap between children and death. But the dominant contemporary reaction remained cautious in associating children with death, as evidenced by the relatively small purview of death-accepting hospices compared to standard death-fighting hospitals. Children encountered death in abundance in media representations, which has been a source of ongoing concern to some adults starting in the days of comic books and radio and continuing on to contemporary Internet games. But real death was more removed from most childhood experience than ever before in human history, with the result that many children had very little idea of what death was about. What happens to children who do experience the death of someone close, and the grief that accompanies it, without much experience or ritual support, remains a significant question in twenty-first-century childhood.

See also: Child-Rearing Advice Literature; Emotional Life; Rites of Passage.


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