Southern Michigan Gravesite Caregivers (Lenawee,Jackson,Hillsdale,Monroe Counties)
Of Tombstones and Tadpoles

“Let’s go semitarian!” my five year old son Wolfgang said to me the other day.

“Semi-tarian?” I asked.

“Yeah, you know, when we go to the place where the dead people are and walk around.” he replied.

Oh, I thought, he wants to go cemeterying.

From the time he was old enough to be outside , my husband I have not hesitated to talk about, and take our son to, cemeteries.

Being people who have always enjoyed strolling through the stones ourselves, it would not have been us to do otherwise. Aside from that, we wanted our son to have a healthy view of death, as well as life.

Death happens, and it is unavoidable. For small children this can be even more traumatizing then to adults. To show them that it is just a natural part of the life experience can be very helpful to children to prepare them for their first experience with losing a loved one.

Whatever religious beliefs you hold to can be helpful with the spiritual aspect of the dying process, but what about what happens next? A cemetery should not be feared, but embraced for the many things it can stand for.

Wolfie has no fear at the cemeteries. He enjoys going around and looking at the designs and artwork. Often he asks “What does this one say, Mommy?”

As I tell him the dates and names and other information that may be there, I am able to use that to teach him about many other things.

“This one says Mary Pickman, Wife of Silas, born 1768-died 1802. That means she was 34. That’s how old Mommy is now.” I tell him.

He looks at me, sad eyed, and asks, “Does that mean you’re going to die soon, Mom?”

I explain to him that back then medicine wasn’t very good, and people didn’t live as long as they do now. I also tell him that there are a lot of tombstones in the cemetery that have the same year on them, which makes me think that maybe there had been an accident or some sickness that hit a lot of people at the same time. I tell him I feel fine, but it is sad she died so young.

His face clears and he places one of the dandelions he carries around on her grave. “She was probably nice, like you.” he says, and we move on.

Talking to him about older times has given me the chance to explain to him a lot about history, local and general. He has also learned a lot about what certain icons carved onto the stones mean. He enjoys this, and I enjoy doing it with him.

Sometimes we come to stones that have been abandoned, neglected, or vandalized. We discuss this, too.

“Mommy, someone painted something on this gravestone!” I hear him yell.

Looking it over, I see that it has obviously been vandalized by some teenagers who style themselves Gothic or Satanist, as there is a crudely drawn pentagram on the back of a broken tombstone.

“That’s a horrible thing, Wolfie. Sometimes people are just mean, and disrespectful. It’s wrong of people to ruin these markers. Someone put this here for someone they loved, and its just rotten that someone would break or paint or do something to these. Maybe the person who used to take care of it is dead now, or moved away, so we should help take care of it instead.”

He nods, and puts down a dandelion. We make a note or take a picture of it, so we can try in the future to put it right.

If we teach children when they are young to have respect for the dead and their remembering places, the children are a lot less likely to grow up to vandalize those places themselves. It doesn’t take much to help keep a cemetery clean and looking good. Of course, you should leave any major restoration work to the professionals, you can surely do little things to help, and children love to help, too. When Wolfie and I walk around cemeteries, we keep our eyes out for broken sticks we can clear away, trash we can pick up, and flowers strewn about. Keeping a cemetery clean and beautiful is a good civil service project even the youngest children can enjoy.

“Can I take pictures now?” he asks. I hand him the camera, reminding him to be careful. He solemnly promises he will, and off he goes.

Letting him take pictures of the things he wants helps him feel like he is a part of the project. It also boosts his self esteem when we look at the pictures later and he see’s that he is getting better about leaving his thumb out of the frame.

He enjoys having his own pictures that he can point out, and say “I took that!”


Sure enough, Wolfie has stumbled upon an old cement flower planter that had filled with water. Inside were hundreds of little tadpoles squiggling around.

“Those little frogs will lose their tails, grow legs, and climb out of that water soon, Wolfie. Then they will be big frogs, and they will live their foggy lives, and maybe one day, one of those frogs will come back here and have babies again. And there will be new life in the cemetery.“

I tell my wide eyed boy.

He looks up, smiling, “Pretty cool, Mommy.”

Pretty cool, indeed.