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A Child's Concept of Death

Joseph H. Richman

Growing up in a middle-class, Jewish home in Washington,D.C., I was not exposed to the concept of death until thedeath of "my maternal grandmother, Jennie Posner, occurred when I was in elementary school. My parents told me, "Do good things and good things happen to you, but if you do bad things the reverse is true."

I, like most children of that period, did not understand the meaning of death but rather engaged in the magical thinking of childhood. As a matter of fact, I thought that God looked like Abraham Lincoln and sat on a throne in the sky and was served by plump little boys who were able, somehow, to fly around.

In my somewhat Utopian childhood, the word 'death' never entered in. This changed somewhat dramatically one day when my father told me that my mother would have to go to Baltimore to visit my grandmother who was sick. Then a few days after that, he said that my brother Aaron and I would go with him to visit Bubbie. For me a trip to Baltimore was always exciting, as it would mean a Yellow cab to Union Station, a train ride on the Pennsylvania or B&O Railroad, and another Yellow cab to Bubbie's home.

In those days, the trains had steam locomotives and prior to reaching Baltimore the train would negotiate a series of tunnels which darkened the interior of the train, despite a few interior lights. Prior to boarding the train, I loved to seethe rods and pistons, hissing with steam, on the locomotive. My world was about to change. When the cab stopped in front of her home' on Baltimore St. and Central Avenue, I opened the cab's door but there was no aroma of freshly baked cinnamon raisin buns emanating from the townhouse. I thought that was odd as she baked those every time I had been there before.

When I got in the house and saw my mother and other family members dressed in black, I knew something was different. All the mirrors were covered with sheets. My mother told me that Bubbie had died. I did not understand what that meant. In order to clarify that, my mother said that Bubbie had gone on a trip to Heaven to be with God. I thought that it was just that, a trip and that she would return to the earth. I was not to go into the formal living room, but after dinner I opened the French doors and I saw my beloved Bubbie, dressed in a white satin dress, with her head elevated, in an open casket with a candle in a candlelabra illuminating the room.

She was not breathing and there was a slightly grayish hue to her face. I ran out of the room crying to my mother who was still in the dining room. She calmed me down but admonished me for disobeying her instructions.

The next day I was in the family car of the funeral director, Sol Levinson and Bros., as the motorcycle-led police escort directed the funeral cortege to Rosedale Cemetery. The mayor of Baltimore had ordered that escort for her in view of her charitable work in the community. That was an experience, as I had never seen a tombstone or grave before.

To this day it is difficult for me to understand why such a wonderful person had to go into that hole in the ground. I can still remember my mother trying to explain that to me by saying, "Don't question the work of God." Indeed, with time, I matured into a grown man, a pediatrician, and realized my mother was right in her thinking.

I hope this small narrative sheds some light.

Joseph H. Richman
MD, MPH

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