Answering a Preschooler's Hard Questions: What's a Cemetery?

Family Matters on 08.26.11
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At a three and a half, W has already asked me most of the questions I've been dreading since his conception. He's posed inquiries about birth and death and divorce. He's asked about alcohol and cigarettes and sadness and anger.

I've answered to the best of my abilities each time. Granted, I told him that the deceased class pet was frolicking in "hamster heaven," prompting the very appropriate follow-up question: "Is Grandpa Locke also in hamster heaven?"

Clearly, I Can do Better

So, when we drove past Green-Wood cemetery for the second time in a month, I was determined to satisfy his curiosity about what, exactly, was happening in that giant, sloping expanse of stones and crosses.

As with most of his pointed questions, I found that I quickly hit a brick wall. Is it possible to explain the concept of a cemetery without explaining death?


Gingerly, I tiptoed around the idea of life as something finite, of death as an inevitable part of living. He had more questions, but I was finished, moving on to lighter conversational fare -- bowling alleys and traffic lights and our favorite desserts. I was fairly confident that I had delivered enough shocking news for one day: you're going to die one day; we're all going to die one day.

I Wasn't Too Far Off

According to Sharon Peters, my trusty expert in the best way to talk to kids, sometimes a brief answer is the best answer. "I don't recommend a lot of cemetery talk with three-year olds," she told me recently. "You don't want to scare them." If pressed, she suggests a quick and simple response: "Sometimes when people get really old they die."

There you have it.

Photo: Dasqfamily/Creative Commons

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