Title: The Funeral
Author: Matt James
Illustrator: Matt James
Publisher: Groundwood Books
Publication Date: April 3, 2018
Audience: Ages 4 – 7
Summary: The telephone rings and Norma’s mother learns that Great Uncle Frank has died. A tear rolls down her cheek. Norma begins to practice her sad face to go with her mother’s mood but she is quite happy. She will get out of school to go to Uncle Frank’s funeral and get to see her favorite cousin, Ray. A few days later Norma and her parents join the funeral procession with a flag on their car. Norma can make out “fun” in the word funeral on the flag. Norma’s mother puts Kleenexes in her purse before they go into the church. At the front of the church is a coffin with flowers on it. Ray and his family sit in front of Norma through a long service with lots of talk about God and souls but not much about Uncle Frank. When the service is over people go to the little building next door with one table for sandwiches and another table for pictures of Uncle Frank. Then Norma and Ray spend a glorious time in the cemetery reading tombstones, playing in the creek, turning handsprings in the open fields, while the adults visit. As they all leave, Norma looks at a picture of Uncle Frank smiling at her. She thinks of him lying in the coffin covered with flowers. On the drive home she says, “I think Uncle Frank would have liked his funeral.”
Literary elements at work in the story: There is limited text in The Funeral; there are abundant illustrations, acrylic and ink on masonite. The book is large (12”x9”) with ample space on a double page to depict the fields around a rural cemetery and the spaciousness of the occasion. The cover practically tells the story: two children at exuberant play, a group of still adults in a distance in dark hues, a wide green field with a few tombstones, a blooming tree, and the title with the first three letters of funeral in bright yellow. Death will not have center stage here but there is no disrespect for the dead. The children see the experience from their own viewpoints. Smells (her mother’s purse and the church sanctuary), sights (dust motes in the light, the towering church), sounds (swirling music) occupy Norma through the service. Ray has to be taken to the bathroom 3 times. He asks, “Is Uncle Frank still a person?”
How does the perspective on gender/race/culture/economics/ability make a difference to the story? This is the funeral of a white person; there are one or two dark-skinned people in the group, but this service reflects a white culture.
Theological Conversation Partners: The Funeral, a charming, honest book in its own right, can serve at least two useful purposes: it can open the subject of death; it can furnish an examination of a ritual that is changing rapidly and with which children have little experience. Death has replaced sex as a taboo subject though it occurs in many video games and movies. It may be frightening, mysterious for those who simply hear about it. It may, of course, have been a painful experience for some children. Everyone will die (not pass, as though racing or playing cards.) Death is central in the story of Jesus that our children are learning. To speak of death as a natural part of life, to talk comfortably of people whom we know who have died, to acknowledge that our faith has something important to say about death-this may be useful and helpful.
Some children who read this book will never have been to a funeral; several will; and some children may have experienced death in a way that is painful. Funerals that they know about may be a large elaborate service seen on TV for a president or a small family group at the cemetery. In many cases today there is no planned service but a gathering of friends and some toasts. In the Presbyterian Church the funeral is called A Service of Witness to the Resurrection and follows a general pattern of corporate worship. Knowing the experience or lack of that the children bring to the story will be important. Realizing how varied funeral services are today and some of the reasons that lie behind these differences can be valuable..
Death is a subject that calls forth some of our deepest theological reflections but The Funeral offers no help here. Norma makes a comment about Uncle Frank’s age and about his liking the funeral. Ray asks if Uncle Frank is still a person, the closest to theology that the book comes. The comment that an adult can make with conviction is in Romans 8: nothing can separate us from the love of God. The book offers the opportunity to discuss a ritual, reflect on feelings and experiences, and affirm this faith.
Faith Talk Questions:
- What is a funeral? Have you ever been to one? Was it like Uncle Frank’s?
- This book says that the funeral is “saying goodby to Uncle Frank.” Is that a good way to describe this service?
- Are all funerals alike?
- Who plans the funeral?
- How does Norma’s mother feel about the service and Uncle Frank? How does Norma feel?
- What were some good things about Uncle Frank’s service?
- Some funeral services are not held in a church. Where else could a funeral service be?
- Norma says that most of what is said at the service is about God and souls. Why would this be?
- Is Uncle Frank still a person? How would you answer this? What would the church say? Does the Bible tell us anything about this?
Thanks to Union Presbyterian Seminary alumna Virginia C. Thomas for this book review.
The Funeral by Storypath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.