A long time ago a man on our street died. His wife brought his ashes home with the intention of burying them in the backyard. It was November, dark by dinner time, and permanently cold.
One night we were busy getting dinner ready and I couldn't find my son anywhere. I'm sorry to say this was not an unusual occurrence. I walked the neighborhood, checked at his friends' houses—no David. All was quiet at the playground. When I returned home, I half expected to find him in the kitchen. But he hadn't shown up. He never wore his watch, or if he did he never consulted it. He was forever wandering in late for supper saying he had lost track of the time. We decided to go ahead and eat without him, as we usually did after our search turned up nothing.
Eventually he came home with cheeks flushed bright red as if he had been outside for eternity. It turned out the widow had snagged him as he was walking by her house. With another boy from the neighborhood, they had gone into her backyard to bury her husband's ashes. David was seven years old. They dug a hole with a tiny spade and poured the ashes into the hole. They held hands, sang songs, and said the Lord's Prayer. They were out in the dark a long time, selecting the spot, digging in the cold earth, moving the stone to mark the grave. The widow had cried and held onto David hard.
Afterwards I could detect no signs that David had been troubled by the experience—not burying the ashes among the dead flowers, not with the crying. Something did trouble him, though—he alone did not know the Lord's Prayer, and he had felt ashamed.
Later the widow said that she was astounded I hadn't adequately prepared him. “For what?” I wanted to ask, “impromptu burials?” She meant nothing unkind in the remark. She simply couldn't imagine a child not knowing the Lord's Prayer by his age.
The next day another neighbor who had learned about the burial stopped by to ask if I knew where my son had been and what he had been up to. Naturally enough, she thought I'd want to know that David had been conscripted into grave digging. I suppose I might have been upset if David had returned home undone. But he didn't. He took the experience in stride. The woman said lots of kids, including hers, would have gotten the heck out of there. I hadn't been consulted, it's true, but if I had, I don't know what I would have said. “No, David can't come over and bury your husband tonight. He has too much homework”?In the end, I would have let him go, even joined them if I had been invited. Knowing how to feel in desperately sad situations and to comfort those in need of comforting happens surprisingly early in life for some, and for some a lifetime isn't enough to learn. David knew how to feel from what felt like the beginning. He may not have known the Lord's Prayer, but he knew churches aren't the only sacred places. He knew the most sacred place is the one he carried inside him and that he could stand with an elderly woman burying her dead and say his own prayer.