Including Children in Memorial Events

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 support from others and it offers them a chance to express their grief in their own way.

Children should not 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 include: “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 decrease a child’s anxiety. It is important to remind children it is okay to cry and it is okay not to cry. Extra attention and affection from adults may be necessary so children feel comforted. It is helpful to make arrangements with a trusted adult so a child can leave the funeral or memorial service early if they choose.

Children should not be forced to view or touch the body of the deceased. Instead, give them the choice. If they are going to view the body, it is helpful to describe how the body might look. An explanation could include this: “Mommy 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.”

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, tell them in advance that the body will feel cold and hard.

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 item, a drawing, a letter or a picture of themselves in the casket.

If the deceased will be buried, it is helpful to explain to a child what that means. Allow their questions to guide what information you share. 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. There are many options for children to keep some of the cremains in a special place. They may like to wear the cremains in a necklace or a bracelet, they may want them in their own small box in their room, or they may simply want to be able to see the box of cremains anytime they want. Keeping some of the cremains allows the child to maintain a physical connection to their loved one.