Guidelines for Children Attending Funerals and Memorial Services
Should children attend funerals? When someone dies, adults are faced with difficult choices about whether children should attend or participate in funerals and memorial services.
Many factors come into play, including the child's age, maturity and ability to understand basic concepts about death, dying and loss. These guidelines about children at funerals can help:
Is the Child Ready?
As a general guideline, children should be allowed to attend a wake, funeral and burial if they want to. They can also be involved in the funeral planning. Joining family members for these rituals gives the child a chance to receive grief support from others and say goodbye in their own way to the person who has died.
Children should never be forced to attend a funeral or memorial service. It is important, however, to understand a child’s reasons for not wanting to attend so that their fears or questions can be addressed. Questions might be: “What is the thing you are most afraid of about the funeral?” “What do you think you might feel if you were to go to the memorial service?” "Do you have any questions about what it will be like?"
Always prepare children for what will happen. Allay their anxieties by describing the funeral process step by step (what they will see, how other people might react, how they might feel). It is important to remind the child that crying or not crying are both OK. Extra attention and affection from adults may be necessary so children do not feel forgotten or neglected. It is helpful to make arrangements with a trusted adult so a child can leave the funeral or memorial service early if they wish.
Give Children a Choice
Children should NEVER be forced to view or touch the body of someone who has died. They need to be given a choice that will be respected. If they are going to view the body, it is helpful to remind them that death is final and to describe ahead of time how the body might look. An explanation could go like this: “Sally will be lying in a wooden box called a casket. She will look like she is sleeping, but she is not. She is dead. Her chest will not rise and fall because she is not breathing. If you touch her, she will feel cold and hard.”
For some children, touching the body may satisfy their curiosity, or serve as a goodbye or an expression of love. Sometimes a child does need to touch or see the body to know that death is real. If a child chooses not to, an adult can gently assure the child that their loved one looked peaceful or at ease.
Children can be asked if there is anything they would like buried with their loved one. It is often comforting for the child to place a small gift, memento, drawing, letter or a picture of themselves in the casket.
Explaining Burial and Cremation to a Child
If funeral plans include a burial, it helps to explain to a child in detail what that means. Children who understand burial are less likely to develop fantasies about where their loved one was put to rest. An explanation may go like this:” The casket will be sealed shut and then taken to a cemetery, where other people who have died are buried in the ground" or "The ashes will be placed in a special resting place in a building called a mausoleum. We can visit any time we want.”
It is sometimes difficult for a child to understand cremation. Remind the child that the person who has died is no longer able to feel sensations, and they will not experience pain. If the child wants to view the body before a cremation, most mortuaries can arrange for this. When describing cremation to a child, it might be helpful to say: “Cremation happens at a place called a crematory. There they use heat to change the body into ashes. These ashes are usually placed in a special box and the family decides what they want to do with the ashes.”