One of the many magazines we subscribe to is the French magazine philosophie. One of the regular features is a section responding to reader questions and one of the columns within that section is questions d'enfance (childhood questions). The November 2010 issue is a special about death and the child's question was on the topic of death (unfortunately the reader questions don't appear to be available in the online version). Here is the question and my loose translation of it:
Un jour, tu vas mourir, mais qu-est-ce que tu feras quand tu auras fini d'être mort? - Martin, 5 ans
[Translation] One day, you will die, but what happens when you are finished being dead? - Martin, 5 years
The question was answered by author and philosopher Pierre Péju. In his answer, he talks about how difficult it is for humans to accept that being dead means no longer existing at all. He says that is why we often see and talk to our dead loved ones in our dreams -- because our desire to be with them makes them return. He talks about the different things that people believe happen when someone is done being dead, ranging from coming back as ghosts to responding to people's prayers to resurrection. He says that believing in resurrection can bring people a lot of comfort, just like we are comforted by the fact that Spring will arrive after Winter. But that if you don't believe that, there are other ways to diminish your grief.
I thought this next part of his answer was just beautiful, so for those who do understand French, I want to quote it directly, followed by my loose translation:
Lorsque quelqu'un est mort, tant qu'on pense á lui, tant qu'on revoit la façon dont il souriait ou marchait ou parlait, tant qu'on tient compte de ce qu'il a fait ou créé, on peut dire qu'il «n'a pas fini d'être vivant». Un «vrai» mort, c'est sans doute quelqu'un á qui plus personne ne pense sur toute la Terre. Personne pour s'en souvenir. Son nom effacé. C'est terrible, mais ça finit par arriver. C'est pourquoi l'important n'est pas de «finir d'être mort», mais de faire que ceux qui sont en vie comme ceux qui ont disparu n'en finissent pas d'être vivants».
[Translation] When someone dies, as we think of him, think of the way he smiled or walked or talked, as we remember what he did or created, we can say that he "has not finished living." A "real" death is, without a doubt, someone who no one on earth thinks about anymore. No one to remember. His name is erased. It is terrible, but it happens. That is why the important thing isn't to "finish being dead", but instead to ensure that those who are alive and those who have disappeared continue to live on.
His response is simple and beautiful. To me, it is both something I could say to my children as I address their questions about death and also a good reminder of how important it is to remember those who have passed, whether that is a baby or child who died too soon, a person who died alone and whose story deserves to be remembered, or a cherished elderly relative who inhabits our fondest memories.