Guidelines for Children Attending Funerals and Memorial Services
Therese Rando, a well-known grief and loss expert, explains that rituals allow structure for important events that happen throughout our lives, including death. A funeral offers a controlled time where individuals can emotionally and physically ventilate their feelings. Funeral rituals generate social support and offer opportunities to find meaning, by applying spiritual and philosophical understandings to loss.[i] Funeral rituals are most effective when they are personal and involve participation from friends and family.
Should Children Attend Funerals?
When the death of a loved one occurs, adults are faced with difficult choices about whether to include children in death rituals such as funerals and memorial services. As a general guideline, children should be allowed to attend a wake, funeral and burial if they want to. Children 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 a chance to say goodbye in their own way to the deceased.
Children should never be forced to attend a funeral or memorial service. It is important, however, to understand the children’s reasons for not wanting to attend, so any 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?”
Always prepare children for what will happen at any death ritual. Describing the funeral process step by step (what they will see, how other people might react, how they might feel) can help allay children’s anxieties about the event. It is important to reiterate 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 could 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. 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 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.”
For some children, touching the body may satisfy their curiosity, be a way of saying goodbye, or be an expression of love. Sometimes a child does need to touch or see the body to know that the death is real. If they decide to touch the body, they should be told that the body will feel cold and hard. If a child does not want to see or touch the body an adult could relay that they saw the body and that the deceased was not living or breathing.
Children should 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, a drawing, a letter or a picture of themselves in the casket.
Explaining Burial and Cremation to a Child
If the deceased will be buried, it is helpful to explain to a child in detail what that means so they will not 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 there are several other bodies buried under the ground (or placed in a hole in the wall of a building called a mausoleum). They have to be placed there because, like with a dead squirrel, their body will begin to decompose because it is no longer living.”
It is sometimes difficult for a child to understand cremation. When describing it, it is important to remind the child that the dead person no longer feels anything, so it is not painful. 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.”
[i] Kenneth J. Doka “Using Ritual with Children and Adolescents,” in Kenneth J.Doka, editor,Children, Adolescents and Loss: Living with Grief (Washington: Hospice Foundation of America,2000), p.154.