Every day, on our walk to and from Charles’s school, we pass the local cemetery. And we keep passing it, because it is by far the longest block on our walk. Since the weather turned nice a couple of months ago, we have taken a detour through the cemetery to look at some of the seemingly ancient headstones (late 1800s, oh my!) and talk about death.
Cemeteries are excellent to walk, by the way – they can be right in the middle of a city and yet be nicely insulated from city noise, they’re well-groomed and unpopulated (except by the dead), and for my kids, it’s a good opportunity for them to talk with me about something different (not sports or magic or Transformers or Star Wars or any of the other little boy stuff they’re always yammering about) while simultaneously learning about respecting a place and not just trying to climb everything in site. Often I challenge my kids with situations in which they MUST behave or else. A friend of mine has said that she frequently does the grocery shopping without her kids because, well, you know how it is. It’s like a goddamn vacation to go grocery shopping alone these days. But then her kids don’t learn how to behave in a grocery store, so when they have to go with her, they act like wild animals. In a cemetery, even if no one is looking, a person should be respectful, so we walk slowly, we look at the gravestones, we stick to the path, and we talk about what Mount Vernon might have been like when the people buried there were alive.
After our first jaunt through the gravestones, Jamie told everyone he could that cemeteries were “where people go to die.” So obviously I had to correct that for him.
“No, honey, people don’t go to the cemetery to die. Sometimes, after people die, we bury them in the cemetery. Then we can visit their grave to talk to them and remember them. Sometimes, instead of burying someone after they die, we cremate them, which means that we burn up their body. Then we put the ashes in an urn, which is like a vase, and we can put that in a cemetery or on a shelf in our homes so that their remains can always be with us. Or, if you’re like Grandpa Roger, you can put the remains of your parents in the garage. Would you like to visit your Grandpa DeWiley and Grandma Lorna next time we go to the beach? They’re in the garage.”
I think that might have confused him more.
I don’t want to shelter my children from death. I mean, I certainly don’t wish for anyone to die, and it is my fervent hope that before they are adults, the only death they’ll have to deal with is that of our dog, but still. They need to understand, right? Death is plenty sad, it shouldn’t also be a scary unmentionable.
This morning, as we were walking by the cemetery, I told the kids that we would be attending a Memorial Day service there, like we do every year, on Monday. There would be live music, prayers, speeches, and we could bring our little American flags.
“What’s Memorial Day, mom?” asked Charles.
“It’s our opportunity and our duty as Americans to honor and celebrate the soldiers who have died in battle.”
“Oh! I remember! I’m not going.”
“Yes, you are.”
“No. I don’t want to. It’s boring.”
When you’re six, EVERYTHING is all of a sudden booooring.
“Sweetheart, we’re all going. It’s the least we can do to show respect for people who gave their lives so that we can live as free Americans today.”
“When I grow up, I’m never going to go.”
Sometimes, as parents, we force our children to do things they don’t want to do, like brush their teeth or go to bed at a reasonable hour. We turn things like bathing into habits so that when they are adults, they don’t have to analyze why having good hygiene is a benefit and then decide to start a healthy habit. In this case, I make my children attend a Memorial Day service every year because it’s good for them and I hope that by the time they are adults, they will view the annual tradition as an imperative, in addition to understanding the reasons behind it. Sometimes teaching respect and honor is more about building the habit and modeling the way than it is about talking. Someday, those insufferable children of mine will be touched by the sacrifices made by so many for others, for ideas, for a place. But it starts now, when they think it is boring.