When adults lose a loved one, they are not only tasked with helping themselves but are also responsible for supporting their children through the grief process too. One of many things to consider after the death is the children’s attendance at the funeral service. Bereaved adults often have questions about whether their children should participate, how young is too young to attend, and how to explain the funeral service to them. As professionals, we can help adults navigate and consider what is best for their family.
Many opinions are often shared with adults about children’s involvement in a service. Adults may reach out to professionals for guidance about whether they should include their children and what is considered age appropriate. As we know for adults, a funeral service can be a way to express one’s thoughts and feelings, have an opportunity to say goodbye, share memories, and be supported and comforted by family and friends. A funeral service can also serve children in the same ways. So, when asked about children’s attendance at a service, encouraging adults to offer choice is recommended. Before offering choice though, adults should ask themselves, “Am I comfortable offering choice?” Adults need to be comfortable or the children will sense their uneasiness. Children also need to be given information about what the service is and what it will include so that they are then able to make informed decisions. For young ones (infants and toddlers) who are unable to make informed decisions about whether or not to attend, there are a few considerations to ponder: “How well does my child do when taken out of his/her routine?” “Am I comfortable having my little one be at the service?” No matter what decisions are made, adults will want a trusted family member or friend to babysit or, if attending the service, to be with the infant or toddler so that the adults can be present to their own needs knowing their child’s needs are being met with love and compassion.
For any new experience, it is important for children to be prepared for what to expect. This includes preparation for attending a funeral service. How might adults best prepare their children? Children explore their world through their senses. What they see, hear, taste, touch, and smell helps them to learn more about their environment. Thus, preparing children for the service using the five senses can be a great way to help them make decisions about attendance and level of participation. In preparing children, adults help them to better understand what their choices are. Children may choose to attend all or part of the service. They may also choose not to attend. A child should never be forced. Their wishes should be respected and followed. If children later state, “I should have…,” it is important for adults to explain to their children that they made the best decision at the time, given what they knew and how they were feeling.
Preparing for the Service
Before delving into the sensory details of the service, adults can answer who, what, when, where, and why by giving clear, direct, and concrete information.
Who will be at the service?
Adults may share that family and friends will be present but people they may not know may also be there as well. People may want to hug them to show that they care, as well as say, “I’m sorry.”
What will happen?
Adults will want to explain what will happen before, during, and after the service. For example, “Will there be singing?” “Are certain people speaking about the loved one who died?” “Will there be photos to look at or a video to watch?” “Will there be a casket? If so, will it be opened or closed?” “Will there be an urn?” “Are there certain religious or spiritual rituals that will take place?” “Will there be some sort of gathering after the service?”
When will the service be?
Where will the service take place?
For example, if it is to be held at a funeral home, explaining the layout of the home (e.g., bathrooms, location of the casket or urn, etc.) will be important.
Why are we doing this?
Adults can explain the purpose of the service. For example, “A funeral is a time for people to come together to say goodbye, share memories and feelings, and be supported and comforted by family and friends.” Adults will also want to include any religious or spiritual beliefs they may have to help explain “why?”
- Like medication, information about services should be provided in “doses,” especially for young children (ages 4 – 8). Information should not be given all in one sitting.
- Euphemisms should be avoided. For example, adults should never explain, “Aunt Martha will look like she is sleeping.” Sleeping should never be equated with death.
- Adults should let children know that people express their feelings in many different ways so that, if they are not crying, they do not feel badly.
If the Service Has a Casket
Before explaining what a casket is and what it is used for, adults should make sure that children understand that when a person dies, their body has stopped working and will never work again. For example, “Nana has died. Her heart has stopped beating. She is no longer able to walk, talk, breathe, or feel things like heat or cold, afraid or worried.” Then, adults should let the children know what a casket is and that they will see it at the service: “A casket is a special box that Nana’s body will be lying in.” Adults should state where the casket will be located at the service, referring to the layout of the place where the service will be held.
If the Casket is Open
It is a good idea for adults to use the five senses to explain what the sensory experience will be:
What children will see:
Adults should explain what the person will be wearing. Children should also be told that the person may not look like he/she did when he/she was alive. For example, “Sometimes when people die, they don’t look exactly how we remember them. They might have on extra makeup, or look pale, or their hair may look different…” Adults should also explain that children will only see the body from the waist up as the bottom part of the casket is usually closed. It’s important for adults to tell the children that the legs are just hidden. Funeral home staff is usually very willing to lift the bottom part of the casket to assure the child the body is intact, if requested. Sometimes children will think they see the person’s chest moving up and down (breathing). Adults should caution them ahead of time that, “Sometimes when we care about someone so much and we want the person to be alive, our eyes can play tricks on us and make us think we are seeing things that we really are not.” Adults will want to assure their children that this is common.
What children will hear:
Children should be made aware that some people may be crying at the service because they miss the person who died. Others may be laughing because they are remembering funny stories about that person. Many people will probably be talking.
What children will feel:
Adults should alert children that, if they decide to touch the person’s body, it will probably be cold and not soft as they remember. Children should not be forced to touch the body or kiss it.
What children will smell:
Adults can let children know that one way people let the family know that they will miss the person and that they care is by sending flowers. It is good to prepare children that they may smell the flowers.
Adults should have another trusted adult available to be with their children, no matter what age, in the event the they want to leave the service or get some fresh air. On the day of the service, a child may change his/her mind about attending. It is wise to have the adult available no matter what is decided.
Adults may want to ask their child if they want to have something put in the casket with the person who died like a note, a photo, a drawing, or a special memento. Adults should remind the child that whatever he/she chooses to leave at the casket will not be returning so to make sure he/she wants the item left behind.
If the Body is Cremated and an Urn Will Be at the Service
Before explaining what cremation is, it is very important for adults to review again with children that when a person dies, their body stops working. Their heart stops beating.
They no longer are able to walk, talk, breathe, or FEEL things like heat or pain, scared or worried. Then, adults can explain, “After a person dies, their body may go to a place called a crematorium. At the crematorium, there is a special room where the body is placed in. The room gets very, very, very hot—hotter than anything we’ve ever felt or touched before. The heat in the room causes the body to get very dry and to turn into something that looks and feels somewhat like sand. We call the sand-like particles cremains or some people call them ashes. However, they’re different from ashes we know, like from a fireplace. The cremains/ashes are then placed in a container called an urn. The urn is going to be at the funeral service.” Adults should stay away from using words like “burn” or “fire.”
Explaining the Burial
Adults will want to share their religious or spiritual beliefs and traditions when they explain burial to children. It is important to be clear, concrete, and to use simple terms. Adults can explain that, like the choice provided to children to attend all or part of funeral services, people also have choices about what they want to happen to their body after they die. Some will choose to have their body cremated while others may choose to have their body in the casket which will be buried in the ground.
Adults can let the children know that at the end of the funeral services, the casket is closed. At the cemetery, there will be a big hole in the ground that the casket will be placed in. Dirt will be put on top of the casket and the casket will be buried. For some traditions, the casket is buried with dirt while loved ones are at the burial while, for other traditions, the body is buried with dirt after family and friends leave. Again, adults will want to emphasize to their children that, once a person dies, they do not FEEL anything. They’re not worried or scared, cold or hungry and they no longer breathe.
As Alan Wolfelt states, “If you’re old enough to love, you’re old enough to grieve.” Children grieve. Letting them be part of the service, if they so choose, can benefit them in their grieving process. Services can allow children the chance to be with and supported by family and friends, to express their thoughts and feelings, and to have the opportunity to say goodbye. Death is a part of life and, by allowing children to attend services, adults can model the ways to cope with life’s losses for their children.
Bordere, T. C., Doka, K. J., Hoy, W. G., Rollins, D., & Sesno, F. (2019). Understanding the Value of Funerals for Children. Washington, DC: Hospice Foundation of America.
The Dougy Center, The National Center for Grieving Children and Families. (1999). What About the Kids? Understanding Their Needs in Funeral Planning and Services. Texas: Western Lithograph.
Wolfelt, A.D. (2016). Helping Children with Funerals. Center for Loss & Life Transition.