We Catholics believe that the communion established between us in God’s love is not broken by death. One of the best ways to teach your kids about this reality is to pray for the dead; here’s how.
This article is adapted from 77 Ways to Pray with Your Kids.
One of the most lovely things about the Catholic Church is that “catholic”—which means “universal”—doesn’t just encompass all the people who walk the face of the Earth, but also those who once walked the Earth but have now passed on to the next life. We Catholics believe that the communion established between us in God’s love is not broken by death. Indeed, we believe the Communion of Saints (the “Church triumphant”) is just as much an active part of the Church as those of us still striving toward heaven (the “Church militant”).
One of the best ways to teach your kids about the reality of this “larger Church” is to pray for the dead—not just on All Souls’ Day and Memorial Day, but throughout the year.
The practice of praying for the dead dates back at least as far as a couple centuries before Christ (see 2 Maccabees 12:38–46) and has long been part of the Christian tradition. The Church teaches that the souls of those who die in friendship with God but who are not completely purified of sin are assured eternal salvation, but must first undergo a final purification from sin (“purgatory”) in order to enter the joy of heaven (see CCC, 1030–1031). We pray for the dead to help them with this purification, to remember them, and to honor them. After all, as Christians we believe that our relationship with friends and relatives is not severed by death, only changed.
Here are some ways to practice praying for the dead with your kids:
- Remember to pray for the dead on All Souls’ Day (November 2), when passing a cemetery, or on the anniversary of the death of friends and relatives.
- Keep a calendar of the death dates of deceased relatives. (The Church typically celebrates saints’ feast days on the anniversary of their death, which also marks their birth into new life.)
- Set out pictures or other mementos of deceased friends and relatives on the anniversary of their death.
- Visit a cemetery on All Hallow’s Eve, All Souls’ Day, Memorial Day, or the anniversary of the death of a relative. A stroll through the cemetery on a sunny Sunday afternoon is a good opportunity to talk about death, dying, and the afterlife with your kids.
- Make the sign of the cross and pray for the dead when you pass a cemetery or funeral procession.
- Teach your kids that burying the dead is a corporal work of mercy, and praying for the dead is a spiritual work of mercy.
- If your church has votive candles, let your kids light one for a deceased relative.
- Use the Eternal Rest prayer (below) when you learn of the death of a friend or loved one. Encourage kids to memorize it. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also provide a comprehensive list of prayers and Scripture readings for the dead, as well as for those who are dying. Find them at Prayers for the Dead and Dying.
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.
Talking to Kids about Death
Talk to your kids about death and the afterlife whenever the opportunity arises. There are some excellent Catholic resources available that tackle this topic; see below, under “Learn More,” for links. Here are some quick tips:
- Young children aren’t developmentally ready to grasp abstract concepts, and child psychologists tell us that they don’t really grasp the concept of death. When you talk to young children about death, set your expectations accordingly and keep things concrete: “He died because his body stopped working/got broken.” “Heaven is not a place we can travel to . . . it is being with God.”
- Don’t worry about traumatizing young children by bringing them to a funeral or talking to them frankly about death. As long as they see that their “big people” are coping, they will most likely take in the whole experience as just another part of the world they’re learning about.
- In the wake of a sudden and traumatic death, let young children lead: Answer their questions as best you can, understanding that it may be impossible to fully satisfy their curiosity until they are older.
- Older children and teens should be exposed to the reality of death in everyday life when possible. Death is a reality that everyone must face throughout their lives. Giving your older children and teens a positive, faith-based perspective on death and dying will go a long way to helping them handle the death of friends and loved ones throughout their lives—and perhaps live their own lives more fully.
Teaching about Death
A fine article about teaching kids about death, from Catholic Culture.
Talking to Your Children about Death
This discussion thread on the Catholic Answers forum contains practical advice from a number of perspectives.
Little Kids and Death: How Taking My Kids to a Traditional Funeral Didn’t Freak Them Out
Parents often worry about traumatizing their kids by exposing them to the topic of death at too young an age, but as Kendra argues at Catholic All Year, kids are more resilient than many adults give them credit for.