The Death of a Child

folktales about excessive mourning
translated and/or edited by

D. L. Ashliman

© 1999-2002


Contents

  1. The Parable of the Mustard Seed (India).

  2. The Burial Shirt (Germany, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm).

  3. Let the Dead Rest (Germany).

  4. Grieving Mothers (Germany).

  5. The Sad Little Angel (Germany).

  6. Excessive Grief for the Dead (England).

  7. Links to related sites.

Return to D. L. Ashliman's folktexts, a library of folktales, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology.

The Parable of the Mustard Seed

India

Kisagotami is the name of a young girl, whose marriage with the only son of a wealthy man was brought about in true fairy-tale fashion. She had one child, but when the beautiful boy could run alone, it died. The young girl, in her love for it, carried the dead child clasped to her bosom, and went from house to house of her pitying friends asking them to give her medicine for it.

But a Buddhist mendicant, thinking "She does not understand," said to her, "My good girl, I myself have no such medicine as you ask for, but I think I know of one who has."

"O tell me who that is," said Kisagotami.

"The Buddha can give you medicine. Go to him," was the answer.

She went to Gautama, and doing homage to him said, "Lord and master, do you know any medicine that will be good for my child?"

"Yes, I know of some," said the teacher.

Now it was the custom for patients or their friends to provide the herbs which the doctors required, so she asked what herbs he would want.

"I want some mustard seed," he said; and when the poor girl eagerly promised to bring some of so common a drug, he added, "You must get it from some house where no son, or husband, or parent, or slave has died."

"Very good," she said, and went to ask for it, still carrying her dead child with her.

The people said, "Here is mustard seed, take it."

But when she asked, "In my friend's house has any son died, or husband, or a parent or slave?" they answered, "Lady, what is this that you say? The living are few, but the dead are many."

Then she went to other houses, but one said, "I have lost a son"; another, "We have lost our parents"; another, "I have lost my slave."

At last, not being able to find a single house where no one had died, her mind began to clear, and summoning up resolution, she left the dead body of her child in a forest, and returning to the Buddha paid him homage.

He said to her, "Have you the mustard seed?"

"My lord," she replied, "I have not. The people tell me that the living are few, but the dead are many."

Then he talked to her on that essential part of his system -- the impermanence of all things, till her doubts were cleared away, and, accepting her lot, she became a disciple and entered the first path.




The Burial Shirt

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

A mother had a little boy of seven years who was so attractive and good natured that no one could look at him without liking him, and he was dearer to her than anything else in the world. He suddenly died, and the mother could find no solace. She cried day and night. However, soon after his burial, the child began to appear every night at those places where he had sat and played while still alive. When the mother cried, he cried as well, but when morning came he had disappeared.

The mother did not cease crying, and one night he appeared with the white shirt in which he had been laid into his coffin, and with the little wreath on his head. He sat down on the bed at her feet and said, "Oh, mother, please stop crying, or I will not be able to fall asleep in my coffin, because my burial shirt will not dry out from your tears that keep falling on it." This startled the mother, and she stopped crying.

The next night the child came once again. He had a little light in his hand and said, "See, my shirt is almost dry, and I will be able to rest in my grave." Then the mother surrendered her grief to God and bore it with patience and peace, and the child did not come again, but slept in his little bed beneath the earth.




Let the Dead Rest

Germany

A wealthy widow in Karlsruhe had an only daughter whom she loved beyond measure because she was as beautiful as she was virtuous. At the prime of her life the girl died, and her mother could not be consoled. She spent several hours every day in the churchyard crying and mourning at her child's grave. Early one day as she was again sitting there lamenting, her daughter's voice called to her from out of the grave, "Mother, please let me rest!"

Shaken, the woman left the cemetery and, to pacify the dead girl, sought to master her grief.




Grieving Mothers

Germany

  1. In Guben a child of Frau P. died, and she cried excessively. Then the child came to her and said, "Mother, do not cry so much. I am deep in water. If you cry any more, I will drown."
  2. One evening another woman from the same town who had also cried excessively for her child placed the water cans upside down in the hallway of her house. The next morning she found them right side up behind the door. Then she thought, "That must mean something. I had better not cry so much, or the water cans will soon be filled with tears."



The Sad Little Angel

Germany

Once upon a time there was a mother whose only child died. She cried for it unceasingly. Once she was out in the field and crying again. Suddenly she saw an entire band of lovely angels flying above her, all of them young and beautiful, all of them happy and cheerful. Then the mother thought, "Oh, if only my child were also such a little angel!" And she looked to see if she could not find her child in the band. But she could not see it.

Then from behind there came a little angel. It was very sad and was carrying a heavy black jug in its little hands. It was the mother's child.

The mother asked, "My child, why are you not with the happy little angels?"

"Mother," it said, "as long as you are crying I must collect your tears and cannot be happy like the others."

From that hour forth the mother cried no more.




Excessive Grief for the Dead

England

An old woman still living [in 1854] in Piersebridge, who mourned with inordinate grief for a length of time the loss of a favorite daughter, asserts that she was visited by the spirit of her departed child, and earnestly exhorted not to disturb her peaceful repose by unnecessary lamentations and repinings at the will of God; and from that time she never grieved more. Events of this kind were common a century ago.




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Revised November 21, 2002.