My husband and I don’t have a “typically developing” child, but I know it’s pretty common for kids to develop intense interests. My friend’s son has an encyclopedic knowledge of comics. I know kids who can focus on Legos for hours, or who go who go deep with reading or the arts. It’s all good.
Our son loves funerals. He’s really fascinated by the entire affair of death and burial; it’s an obsession. He has actually never been to a funeral but that doesn’t dampen his enthusiasm in the least. As I write this, he’s listening raptly to a YouTube video of Minecraft characters crying at a funeral service. Attending funerals without him feels unfair, like making a superhero-worshiping child stay home while you go to Comic-Con.
We’ll take him to a funeral eventually if a family member dies (hopefully far in the future). Our loved ones know that he has autism, so they’re less likely to freak out if he does his “happy dance” at the sight of a real casket and funeral home. I wonder, will it be his obsession for the ritual itself or the sadness of losing a loved one in the driver’s seat?
He’s a good researcher and has discovered enough material to inform some convincing dramatic play. I bought plastic flowers at a craft store so he could have them for the “gravesite” in our living room and it made his day. He enjoys making gravestones, but eulogizing the deceased (whether it’s me or one of our pets) is where he shines. If I’m not playing dead, I participate by being one of the mourners. He’ll interrupt the eulogy to tell me if I’m not crying realistically enough or if it’s time to shriek something like “It’s such a sad day!” He has this game mastered. Just wait until he learns about cremation.
A few months ago my husband received a voicemail from a local funeral home. They were following up on a request for burial information via a form on their website. Our son had completed and submitted the form, giving them our complete contact information. We returned the call to say we had no interest in purchasing a burial package and to apologize for any inconvenience. (We’re getting really experienced on the art of awkward conversations.)
He’d love a personal tour of a funeral home, but for now we visit cemeteries. While I’m drawn to the older section where the graves are in disarray and barely legible, he insists on looking at the newer section. He won’t tell me why he prefers it, but I’m guessing it’s due to the uniformity of the headstones and their layout. When we come across a trinket left at a gravesite, he examines it carefully and asks questions about who put it there and why. He’s a maintenance man in the making, carefully adjusting flowers and straightening flags.
Graveside moments have shown me aspects of his personality that I wouldn’t see on an ordinary day. On Veteran’s Day we decided to spontaneously stop at a local cemetery we’d never visited. It was small and had veterans from almost every war we’ve fought. As I explained this, he stopped at each grave and said, “Thank you for your service.”
Our trips also yield solid teachable moments. Last week, we saw the grave of my grandmother’s sister who died when she was 12 years old. Having recently turned 12, he was taken aback that someone his age could be in a cemetery. I explained that she died of a disease that we don’t have to worry about (meningitis) because we have vaccines, and for the first time in his life, he understood why we make him get shots at doctor visits. Hooray for having that knowledge to explain future doctor visits!
Though our son’s obsession with death and burial might seem unusual, his knowledge will be helpful in the future when we have to navigate that territory together. When the time comes, we want to be able to focus on him and not how others perceive him. We appreciate and support his curiosity, even if it pushes the boundaries of what appears to be normal or expected. That seems like an instinct that all parents can relate to.