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Children & Funerals and Cremations

By adulthood, most of us have attended a funeral. But what is a funeral like for a child or teenager who unexpectedly loses a parent, sibling, grandparent or friend? And how do children say goodbye? What do they need, and how can families and funeral services address their needs?

Too often, kids feel like the “forgotten mourners.” They are seen but not heard or spoken to at a funeral. Often what they get is a pat on the head, or hugs from adults they don’t even know. Many adults still wonder if it’s a good idea to include children in funerals at all. While every family has its own traditions and beliefs, and these will play a strong role in funeral and memorial service planning and decisions, parents may not be aware that one of the most helpful things they can do for their children during this time is to give them choices.

Children appreciate having choices as much as adults do. They have opinions, and want to be valued enough to be allowed to offer them. And they don’t like to be left out of anything, even a funeral. It is a meaningful and important experience for children to have the opportunity to say goodbye to the person who died in a way that feels right to them. Saying goodbye is never easy, but it helps bring a sense of finality to the death that is helpful in the healing process.

To attend or not to attend the funeral

“They didn’t let me go to the funeral. They said I was too young. I’m still mad. ”Paul, 8

People often wonder at what age a child should attend a funeral. Age is not the most important consideration. Generally speaking, young children don’t seem to have the fear of the deceased or dead bodies adults think they do. What works well is to invite children or teenagers to the funeral, without forcing them to make a particular decision.

Children who are not allowed to attend a funeral may feel they didn’t get their chance to say goodbye. On the other hand, children who were forced to attend a funeral may feel resentful. Children should not be criticised if they don’t want to attend the funeral. They may regret the decisions they make, but they won’t have the added issue of resentment for not being allowed to make their own choice.

In order to make their choice, children need explanations and information about what a funeral is and what is going to happen. After a death, the world as they know it is completely changed. Additional surprises and unfamiliar situations can complicate the grieving process. Not unlike adults, kids like to be filled in on the basics of who, what, where, when and why.

Children also expect us to be clear, direct and concrete in our explanations. Teenagers appreciate this too. They are experts at discerning when adults are beating around the bush. When explaining the events of a funeral to child, it’s best to “tell it like it is.” Typical aspects of the funeral that may be discussed include:

  • Who… will be at the funeral or memorial service?
  • What… is going to happen?
  • Where… will the service take place?
  • When… will the funeral happen?
  • Why… are we doing this?

What happens, or doesn’t happen, at a funeral will be remembered forever by a child. Parents and other caregivers have the opportunity to influence a child’s experience by including children in the one way they most deserve and request: informed choice.

Explaining Cremation

When a deceased family member or friend is to be cremated or already has been cremated, your child may want to know what cremation is. In answering your child’s questions about cremation, keep in mind the guidelines that have already been outlined in this leaflet. Keep your explanation of what cremation involves simple and easy-to-understand.

In explaining cremation to your child, avoid words that may have a frightening connotation such as “fire” and “burn”. Instead, in a straight-forward manner, tell your child that the deceased body, enclosed in a casket or container, is taken to a place call a crematory where it goes through a special process that reduces it to small particles resembling fine gray or white sand. Be sure to point out that a dead body feels no pain.

Let your child know that these cremated remains are placed in a container called an urn and returned to the family. If cremation has already taken place and the container picked up, you may want to show it to the child. Because children are curious, your child may want to look at the contents. If your child makes such a request, look at them yourself first so that you can describe what they look like. Share this with your child. Then let the child decide whether to proceed further.

If possible, arrange for a time when you and your child can be with the body before the cremation is carried out. If handled correctly, this time can be a positive experience for the child. It can provide an opportunity for the child to say “goodbye” and accept the reality of death. However, the viewing of the body should not be forced. Use your best judgment on whether or not this should be done.

Depending on the age of your child, you may wish to include him or her in the planning of what will be done with the cremated remains. Before you do this, familiarize yourself with the many types of cremation memorials available. Some of the many options to consider include burying the remains in a family burial plot, interring them in an urn garden that many cemeteries have, or placing the urn in a columbarium niche.

Defined as a recessed compartment, the niche may be an open front protected by glass or a closed front faced with bronze, marble, or granite. (An arrangement of niches is called a columbarium, which may be an entire building, a room, a bank along a corridor or a series of special indoor alcoves. It also may be part of an outdoor setting such as a garden wall.)

Although your child may not completely understand these or other options for memorialisation, being involved in the planning helps establish a sense of comfort and understanding that life goes on even though someone loved has died. If you incur any difficulties in explaining death or cremation to your child, you may wish to contact us.

When a child asks questions about cremation, adults should be prepared to answer.

Practical ideas to help you help your child

Many children will respond to physical comfort. Suggestions are:

(a) Give special foods. Soft foods can be reassuring and are a reminder of earlier, easier times.

(b) Children respond to snuggling against a warm, soft rough surface. So let them sleep between flannelette sheets or have a blanket on top of them.

(c) Extra clothes in the daytime help to reduce the coldness of shock and instills a feeling of being lovingly wrapped and protected against possible harm.

If difficulty in getting to sleep for relaxation…
allow a radio or tape to play softly.

For fear of the dark…
use a night light.

Children need physical play…
try not to cut this time down even if the child is getting behind with his school work due to lack of concentration. Seek teacher participation.

Grief is tiring…
so alternate a child’s passive and active occupations. Arrange a quiet time in the afternoon and plan an early bedtime.

If they are having difficulty
in following directions, make a list out. This can be done in the form of pictures for the very young.

A special outing, treat…
present or new colourful clothes can bring comfort and help to create a feeling of security.

If the child is over-eating
serve the food on individual plates. You could say ‘I wonder if you are really hungry, let’s try a cuddle instead’

Offer small nourishing meals…
to those who lose interest in eating.

For both over-eating and under-eating…
teach the child to cook. Sharing time together is reassuring and teaching your child all about healthy eating can help them appreciate the benefit of eating properly

When your child doesn’t want to go to school

When your child is struggling to sleep

Supporting your child with low self esteem

Supporting your child with emotions

Supporting your child with eating difficulties

What to do if your child self harms