Lesson in death was worth undertaking

23rd February 2007 at 00:00
Just before the news from the United Nations children's fund (Unicef) that Dutch children are happier than British ones, there came news in The TES (February 9) that a group of pupils in Holland are building a coffin for their teacher. The practical and green-minded Eri van den Biggelaar, on learning that her cancer was terminal, asked the craft teacher to make one.

He in turn asked the children. They are working on it. This is a primary school.

I remembered that story as soon as the Unicef report on happiness came out, and it seemed to me that the two things fit: the happiness and the coffin-building. The breezy, open, affectionate Dutch approach to family, life, death and sex has always struck me as wonderful. I have sailed with Dutch crews often in the Tall Ships races, and shared sorrow as well as cheerfulness with them. And this primary school, it seems to me, is bang on target.

I have had a few arguments on the subject with parents who say that primary school is too soon for such things, and it is pretty obvious that if a UK teacher made the same request there would be dreadful yowling and removing of children and talk of "trauma". The word "inappropriate" would be trundled out, as usual. But the Dutch school is right, for three reasons.

First, young children know about death. They have nightmares about it.

There are shootings in the streets, maybe quite near them, car accidents, horrifying drink-drive adverts, television news of massacres and a relentless diet of pruriently violent films served as entertainment. There are dark jokes and vampire movies and Hallowe'en masks and zombie cartoons.

As a result, when a relative dies a more normal death, they're terrified.

One six-year-old boy, told that his granny had died, asked: "Who shot her?"

To prepare children to accept an ordinary death, one faced with dignity and calm by an adult they are fond of, is a kind and useful thing - with or without belief in the afterlife.

Second, the coffin-making will gently teach them one very useful truth, for the rest of their lives. When death is inevitable or has already happened, the prevailing sense - beyond shock - is of powerlessness. It is the one thing we cannot cure. Not ever. This shakes us to our foundations. The bereaved therefore often crave activity. They want to do something for the dead - organise a good funeral, make a memorial, set up a fund, honour the lost one's name. There is comfort in that. Making the box, they will feel that the death, sad as it is, does not exclude them utterly from the person they are fond of.

Finally, making a coffin with care and love teaches a lesson about respect for the body. The horror films and news bulletins endlessly tell a story of carnage, carelessness, mass graves, dismemberment. The coffin tells another story. It tells them that while a dead body is no longer needed, it deserves respect and dignified disposal,as the lifelong home of a human spirit.

But the UK parents who would protest and prattle about "trauma" are, I bet, the same ones who give their young children bedroom TVs and fail to police the vilest computer games. Me, I'm with the Dutch.

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