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Taking your child to a funeral

Should children go to funerals? Is there a minimum age from which it is appropriate for kids to attend a funeral? Is the funeral of grandpa or grandma or another loved one going to overwhelm my child? Is it appropriate for my baby/toddler/pre-schooler to attend a funeral? What is going to help my child more: Attending the funeral or staying at home? When a family member or loved one has died you might ask yourself these or similar questions as a parent.

A funeral is a ritual, a special ceremony, that offers us the opportunity to say our final ‘goodbye’ to a person we loved or cared about. It can be one of the first steps on our grieving journey and may help us come to terms with the reality of life without the deceased. In this blog post, we are discussing in what ways and under what circumstances children can benefit from going to the funeral of a loved one, how you can help them understand the purpose of a funeral and how you can best support them if they are attending.

Should children go to funerals?

This is an important and very personal decision. It might also feel like a difficult one. The great news is: There is no right or wrong and you don’t have to decide by yourself. Psychologists and grief experts recommend talking to your child. They need to understand the concept of death – that the body has stopped working, doesn’t need food or water anymore, doesn’t breathe and can’t feel any pain – and what the funeral is all about. Take them through what will happen with a step by step explanation. Once they have all the information, let your child choose if they would like to go to the funeral or rather stay home with someone they know.

If the child expresses the wish to attend, you should let them. If they don’t want to go, they shouldn’t be forced. There are other ways to remember the person who died with your child after the funeral, for example by visiting the grave or scattering the ashes together, by letting a balloon fly, planting a tree or creating a memory box. Tell your child that it’s okay to have a change of heart – even at the last minute. Encourage questions and check in with them regularly to see how they are coping and how they are feeling about the funeral. If your child would like to attend the funeral, find ways for them to get involved and contribute. They could draw a painting, write a letter, help choose flowers, a reading, a hymn or a poem, or a memory of the deceased loved one that could be shared during or after the service. In some places, it is even possible for the family to decorate the coffin together.

People who work with bereaved children and adolescents report that they haven’t come across one that has regretted going to a funeral – as long as they weren’t forced to do something that they weren’t comfortable with. However, many hold resentments for not being allowed to attend and ended up feeling excluded or struggling with their grief for many years.

Taking a baby or a toddler to a funeral

What if the child is too young to understand what is happening? Is it appropriate to take your baby or toddler to a funeral? Your primary worry might not be that it could be a harrowing experience for them but how fussy and noisy they might be. 

Even though your child might be too young to actively remember attending the funeral, they may still appreciate that they were included and allowed to partake if they had a close relationship with the person who died.

Babies and toddlers, although they might not act and behave appropriately at all times, can be a wonderful reminder that life still holds joy and hope and so much magnificent potential. Depending on your and your child’s relationship with the deceased it may be worth considering for them just to join for the wake where it’s overall noisier and less formal in general.

Helping a child understand the purpose of a funeral

Children are curious by nature. They also tend to take things very literally and have a vivid imagination. Kids, therefore, rely on us to give them clear, honest and age-appropriate information. They will very likely ask a lot of questions, sometimes repeatedly. This is how children reconfirm and process news. Kids intuitively know how much information they can digest at any one time and will let you know by becoming fidgety or distracted. Keep your explanations short and to the point. When they are ready to find out more, they will come back to you and ask questions. Your child may ask questions that might take you by surprise. It is okay to say “I don’t have an answer to this just now, but I will get back to you once I have found out.” What type of funeral you and your family will hold for your loved one and how you will explain the concept of death to your child will depend on your religious and/or cultural background as well as your personal beliefs.

Here are some general suggestions on how to help your child understand the purpose of a funeral and what’s going to happen:

What is a funeral and why do we have it?

“A funeral is a special ceremony to say ‘goodbye’ to someone who died. It is also an opportunity to remember them, all the great memories you made together and celebrate the life they’ve lived and shared with you. Uncle Sam’s funeral will be on (day of the week) at (time). I can tell you a bit more about what happens at the funeral and what it’s going to be like and you can have a think if you’d like to come as well. It’s ok if you’re not sure. And it’s also ok if you change your mind again. If you’d prefer to stay home, our friend Lindsay is going to look after you and take very good care of you until mummy and daddy are back.

You can ask me any questions you have and I will try my very best to answer them. If I don’t know, I will find out for you.” Child Bereavement UK has created a great video on “How do I explain a funeral to a young child” that you might find helpful.

Explain the basic vocabulary, for example, “What is a coffin/urn?” or “What is a grave?

We oftentimes just assume that children know what a coffin or an urn is and what a grave looks like. They might have picked the words up on TV or in an overheard conversation but not really know what any of those are. Again, it’s always best to meet the child where they are at and we, therefore, suggest simply asking: “What do you think a coffin looks like? Do you know what it’s used for?” Depending on their knowledge and age, you could say: “A coffin is a special box, made out of wood (you can describe the colour and some other details like handles as well). Grandpa is dead. He doesn’t need to eat food, drink water or breathe air. He can’t think or tell jokes and stories; neither does he feel pain or anything else. So, grandpa doesn’t need his body anymore. That’s why his dead body will be put in the coffin.” If applicable: “After the funeral service, the coffin will be carried to the cemetery. There will be a deep hole in the ground which is meant for the coffin. Once it is placed in there, it will be covered with Earth. After a while, grass will grow on top and when we feel ready we can choose a gravestone. It will have grandpa’s name on it as well as his birthday and the day he died, so everybody knows where his body is buried.” or “Grandpa wanted a cremation. That means his body will be turned into very fine ashes. The funeral director, that’s the man/woman who helps us organise grandpa’s funeral, will have them put into an urn. That’s a special pot. We can decide if we want to bury the ashes in the ground or if we’d like to take them to one of grandpa’s favourite places and scatter them there. But we don’t need to decide that now. We can wait until we feel ready.”

What is going to happen at a funeral?

Take your child through the most important steps of the funeral and what will probably happen (adjust the following depending on what type of funeral your family has planned): “There will be about 50 people at grandma’s funeral. You will see your aunties and uncles, your cousins and some other family members (whatever is applicable). There will also be some of grandma’s friends whom you haven’t met before. Almost everybody will wear dark clothes. Some people might cry. It’s ok if you cry too, but don’t worry if you don’t feel like crying. That’s fine too. People might come up to you and say something like ‘I am so sorry for your loss.’ You can say ‘Thank you.’ You will see the coffin with grandma’s body in it at the front of the room/church/mosque/temple/… and there will be a lot of beautiful flowers. We will all sing some hymns together – if you want to, you can help me choose a couple of them. Uncle Ben will hold a speech which is called a eulogy to share some memories of grandma with everyone and tell them about her life. After the ceremony, the coffin will be taken to the cemetery where it will be lowered into the grave/vanish behind curtains where it gets put into a special, very hot oven that burns it and turns it into ashes. We will not watch this part.”

Why do people cry and hug at a funeral?

Children usually don’t often see more than one adult cry at a time. At a funeral, however, they might see some people chatting, smiling, maybe even laughing (when anecdotes about the deceased are being shared or at the wake) while others will be overwhelmed with sadness and grief and cry. This can be confusing to kids. You could explain it this way: “When someone we love and care about dies, we are oftentimes very sad. At the funeral, you might see a few or many adults cry. If you feel like crying too, that’s ok. It’s also okay to not feel like crying. You might also see people chatting, sharing stories about Aunty Lilly and remembering all the fun they had with her over the years. Of course, we miss her but we are also grateful for all the years we got with her and the memories we made together.”

What happens after the funeral?

“After the funeral, we will go and grab a bite to eat at the pizzeria that granny loved so much. Getting together for a meal after a funeral is called a wake. This allows everybody to share more stories and memories about granny and remember all the good times we had with her.”

Visit the location with your child before the funeral

None of us likes uncertainty. You can greatly help your child by taking away as much uncertainty as possible about what the funeral will be like. This may include visiting the funeral director and asking them if your child could have a look at one of their coffins or urns and/or visiting the location where the funeral will be held as well as the graveside if there will be a burial. You can talk them through the different stages of the funeral service on location, explain to them where the coffin will be and where the flowers go, who will sit where, where the music will be coming from, etc. If any objects are unfamiliar to your child, explain to them what they are called and used for.

How can you help your child at a funeral?

  • If you have been very close to the person who died and are dealing with your own grief, have someone your child knows well and trusts sit with and look after them during the funeral. They can be their shoulder to cry on, answer your child’s questions or take them for a walk if they get too upset or very bored and restless.
  • If you are taking your toddler, let them bring their favourite toy or a book they can look at or maybe some paper and pencils to busy themselves with during the ceremony.
  • If it is possible, actively involve your child in the ceremony and give them a task but always check with them if they want to do what you are asking them to do. That could for example be to read a poem or hand out the order of service to everybody who attends. They might also have an idea of their own.

If your child chooses to attend the funeral it doesn’t matter if they are too young to remember the details when they grow older. What will stay with them is that they felt included in this very important ritual and that it was a non-threatening, meaningful experience.

Funerals are a life event – just like graduations, weddings and anniversaries. At Safe Hands, we talk about funerals every day. We are a regulated and trusted provider of pre-paid funeral plans, can help you with practical advice and have a Bereavement Support Team who can talk to your family, when the time comes. To learn more about how we can help and support you, please have a look at our “About Us” page or contact us

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