Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Children's Ideas of Death


The Ingenuity of Some of Our Youngsters to Avoid the Inevitable.

Like the beginning of life, its termination, death, is one of the recurring puzzles of childhood, writes Professor Cully in The Popular Science Monthly. This might be illustrated from almost any autobiographical reminiscences of childhood. Here indeed the mystery is made the more impressive and recurrent to consciousness by the element of dread. A little girl of 8 years asked her mother to put a great stone on her head, because she did not want to die. She was asked how a stone would prevent it and answered, with perfect childish logic, "Because I shall not grow tall if you put a great stone on my head, and people who grow tall get old and then die."

Death seems to be thought of by the unsophisticated child as the body reduced to a motionless state, devoid of breath and unable any longer to feel or think. This is the idea suggested by the sight of dead animals, which but few children, however closely shielded, can escape.

The first way of envisaging death seems to be as a temporary state like sleep, which it so closely resembles. A little boy of years, on hearing from his mother of the death of a lady friend, at once asked, "Will Mrs. P—— still be dead when we go back to London?"

The knowledge of burial leads the child to think much of the grave. The instinctive tendency to carry on the idea of life and sentience with the buried body is illustrated in C——'s fear lest the earth should be put over his eyes. The following observation from the Worcester collection illustrates the same tendency: "A few days ago H——, aged 4 years and 4 months, came to me and said, 'Did you know they'd taken Deacon W—— to Grafton?' I, 'Yes.' H——: 'Well, I s'pose it's the best thing. His folks (meaning his children) 'are buried there, and they wouldn't know he was dead if he was buried here.' " This reversion to savage notions of the dead in speaking of a Christian deacon has its humorous aspect. It is strange to notice here the pertinacity of the natural impulse. All thoughts of heaven were forgotten in the absorbing interest in the fate of the body.

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