Many of our experiences with death begin with a phone call. On the very first page of The Funeral, the words “RING RING” emanate from a large apartment building. While the rotary phone, in the next illustration, may not be recognizable to most young children, the experience at the heart of this story is deeply relatable and true to life. In his first picture book as both writer and illustrator, Governor General’s Literary Award winner Matt James (Northwest Passage; When the Moon Comes) explores a child’s seemingly unaffected reaction to the death of a distant family member.
Young Norma is not upset when her great-uncle Frank dies. Although she briefly practises her sad face in the mirror, she’s mostly excited to get the day off school and see her cousin Ray at the funeral. After sitting through the long service “with all that talk about God and souls,” Norma finally gets her chance to go outside and explore with Ray.
Before playtime, though, Norma has a personal, sensory experience of the funeral service: she buries her face in her mother’s purse to enjoy the familiar smell, she listens to the “swirling song” of the organ, and she watches dust dancing in the church air. She’s fully immersed in and mindful of her surroundings.
James combines acrylic and ink on Masonite with other media for the illustrations, which vary in composition and degree of realism. Trees are a vibrant pink, grass is a limitless green ocean, and some pages contain multiple panels or backgrounds bursting with bright patterns. The idea of locating “fun” in funeral – highlighted in both the title lettering and Norma’s attempt to sound out the word funeral (she doesn’t get past the first syllable) – seems like it might turn heavy-handed, but these are the only explicit references to the life-affirming message at the heart of the story.
The pictures and text don’t portray what happens at a funeral as much as what a funeral feels like for a child – and it doesn’t have much to do with death. James shows how children can remain focused on the joy and playfulness in life, even when surrounded by loss and sadness.