The Death of a Child

folktales about excessive mourning
translated and/or edited by

D. L. Ashliman

© 1999-2014


Contents

  1. The Parable of the Mustard Seed (A Buddhist parable).

  2. The Death of a Dearly Loved Grandson (A Buddhist parable from The Udana).

  3. Ubbiri: Why Weep for Eighty-Four Thousand Daughters (A Buddhist parable).

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

  5. A Mother's Tears (Northern Europe).

  6. Let the Dead Rest (Germany).

  7. Grief-Stricken Mothers (Germany).

  8. The Sad Little Angel (Germany).

  9. Excessive Grief for the Dead (England).

  10. 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

A Buddhist Parable

Kisagotami [Kisa Gotami] 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 Death of a Dearly Loved Grandson

The Udana

Thus have I heard.

On a certain occasion the Blessed One dwelt at Savatthi, in the eastern monastery, in the pavilion of Visakha-Migaramata.

Now at that time, the dearly loved grandson of Visakha-Migaramata died. And Visakha-Migaramata went at unseasonable hours, with hands and hair wet (with tears), to where the Blessed One was, and drawing near she saluted the Blessed One and sat down apart.

And the Blessed One said to Visakha-Migaramata, as he sat there: "Wherefore, O Visakha, do you come here at unseasonable hours, with hands and hair wet (with tears)?"

"Sire, my dearly loved grandson is dead; that is why I come here, at unseasonable hours, with hands and hair wet (with tears)."

"Do you find, O Visakha, that there are sons and grandsons in proportion to the number of men in Savatthi?"

"I find, Blessed One, that there are sons and grandsons in proportion to the number of men."

"And how many men of Savatthi, Visakha, die daily?"

"Sometimes, Sire, ten men of Savatthi die daily, some times nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two; some times, Sire, only one man dies in the day. Of men dying in Savatthi, there is no lack, Sire."

"What think you, Visakha; have you found at anytime or anywhere, men whose garments have been unwetted (by tears), whose hair has been unwetted (by tears)?"

"Not so, Sire; how is that possible with so many sons and grandsons?"

"Those, Visakha, who have a hundred dear ones, have a hundred sorrows. These who have ninety dear ones, have ninety sorrows. These who have eighty dear ones, have eighty sorrows etc. Those who have one dear one, have one sorrow. Those who have no dear one, for them there is no sorrow. These, I declare, are the griefless ones, free from human passion, without despair."

Whatsoever of sorrow, lamentation and pain is in the world,
All this arises from clinging, where clinging is not, these are not.
Therefore happy and sorrowless are those who cling not to anything in the world.
Set not your affections on things on earth.



Ubbiri: Why Weep for Eighty-Four Thousand Daughters

A Buddhist Parable

Ubbiri was reborn in the dispensation of the present Buddha at Savatthi, in the family of a wealthy householder, and she was exceedingly beautiful and fair to see. When she reached womanhood, she was conducted to the house of the king of Kosala, and after a few years had passed, obtained an only daughter. To the latter they gave the name Jivanti, or Living. The king, seeing her daughter, was pleased at heart, and conferred upon Ubbiri the ceremonial sprinkling of a queen.

But when her daughter was old enough to walk and to run hither and yon, she died. Every day the mother went to the burning-ground where her body was laid, and wept. One day she went to the Teacher, saluted him, sat down for a short while, and then departed. Standing on the bank of the river Aciravati, she wept for her daughter.

Seeing her, the Teacher, just as he sat in the Perfumed Chamber, manifested himself to her, and asked her: "Why do you lament?"

"I lament for my daughter, Exalted One."

"In this burning-ground have been burned eighty-four thousand daughters of yours. For which one of these do you lament?" And pointing out the spot where this one had been burned, where that, he uttered the first half of a stanza:

You cry in the wood: "O Jiva dear!"
Come to yourself, O Ubbiri!
In all, eighty-four thousand
Daughters of yours named Jiva.
Have been burned in this burning-ground.
For which one of these do you lament?
After the Teacher had taught her this lesson, she extended her knowledge in conformity with the lesson, laid hold on insight, and both by the charm of the Teacher's lesson and by her own accumulation of causes in previous states of existence, became established in the highest of the fruits, sainthood.

And having attained sainthood, she made known the specific attainment she had attained by uttering the second half of the stanza:

Ah! he has drawn out the arrow,
So hard to find, that was in my heart.
For when I was overcome with sorrow,
He banished my sorrow for my daughter.

I here today am one from whom an arrow has been drawn,
I am cut off from the world, I am gone to Nibbana.
I seek refuge in the Sage, -- the Buddha,
And in the Doctrine, and in the Order.




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.




A Mother's Tears

Northern Europe

Thomas of Cantimpré's grandmother had a son, the firstborn of her marriage. He was beautiful and loveable in every way, but he did not live long. Afterward she bore another son who excelled in weaponry, but at the same time was a lazy wastrel. The poor mother could not look at him without thinking of her firstborn son and breaking into tears.

One day, after crying for him, she experienced the following vision:

She saw a number of boys joyfully walking down a street. At once she thought of her son and looked to see if he might be one of them, but to no avail. Broken hearted she began crying bitterly, but soon afterward she saw her lost son creeping slowly along the street.

Deeply grieved, the good woman called out, "Son, why are walking by yourself and not with the others? What is holding you back and slowing your pace?"

Then the departed one pointed to his clothing, which was heavy with wetness, and said, "See, mother, these are the tears that you are shedding, unnecessarily and against my will. Their weight is pressing down on me so much that I cannot possibly keep up with the others. Please desist with them, and offer them instead to God, so that I can be freed of this burden."

The woman did just that and cried no more for the dead boy .




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.




Grief-Stricken 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 (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 July 12, 2014.