July 30, 2018

The Funeral

Written and illustrated by Matt James
Groundwood Books
40 pp.
Ages 4-7
April 2018

Funerals always mean something different to those attending. There are those who are overwhelmed with grief and others who treat it as a social event. There are some for whom the funeral is just part of the cycle of life. But what does a funeral mean to children, particularly for the very young?

When Norma's mother's gets the phone call that her Uncle Frank has passed, she is saddened. Norma knows she should be too–in fact, she practises her sad face in the mirror– but attending a funeral for Norma means getting the day off school and seeing her favourite cousin Ray. 

Though Norma and Ray follow their parents' directives and participate in the process that is the funeral–the procession, the church service, a reception–they are young and find ways to focus on other things: the smell in a mother's purse, a giraffe stuffie, the dancing dust mots, the music and the other funeral attendees. They have questions but their natural inclinations are to participate in life. The two slip outside into the graveyard and natural world, feeling the freedom that comes from being able to move and observe and explore.
From The Funeral by Matt James
Though Norma recognizes that Uncle Frank died because he was really old, she still ponders what his death means to those around her. In the end, she recognizes that "I think Uncle Frank would have liked his funeral."

There are many books that help discuss end of life with children but never have I seen one that honours how children see death and the funeral process as aptly as Matt James's The Funeral. It is just one funeral and it's not every child's response to a funeral but it is very honest and real. Perhaps it's a book for parents to recognize that children may be part of the grieving process, without grieving as their elders might, and their ways are appropriate for them. I'm pleased that the parents and others don't chastize the children for being disrespectful for playing outdoors or being inattentive to all the rituals (though Norma does recognize "how looong they sat on those hard seats, with all that talk about God and souls, and not very much talk about Uncle Frank.")
From The Funeral by Matt James
The story in The Funeral is carried by Matt James's illustrations, the same acrylic-and-ink artwork that won him a Governor General's Literary Award for Northwest Passage (Groundwood, 2013). The art is raw, not necessarily neat and tidy, but, just like life, it is buoyant and energetic and hopeful even during times of great sadness.  With its colour, its lines and its words, The Funeral celebrates the spirit of those who lived and those who love life.

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