Monday, August 5, 2013

When Children Attend A Funeral: Some Preparation Tips

[Reviewed and updated October 27, 2022]

At what age should children attend a funeral? 
When deciding whether your child should attend a funeral or memorial service, age is not the most important consideration. Your child is part of the family, and as grief expert Dr. Alan Wolfelt wisely observes, children who are old enough to love are old enough to grieve.

No child is too young to attend a funeral, provided that the child is prepared for what will happen and what he or she will see at the funeral home, and is lovingly guided through the process. Shutting children out makes them feel alone and conveys the idea that death and grief are too horrible to be faced. Children need to learn that special, loved people do die—but also that there will always be somebody there to take care of them.

An earlier post included some suggestions for Explaining Death to Children.

Here we'll focus on preparing your children for a visitation, viewing, funeral or wake.

Begin with who, what, when, where, and why. Children need to know who will be at this event, what will happen, when and where the service will take place, and why you are doing this.

Arrange a visit beforehand. If possible, you can take your children to visit the mortuary, funeral home or house of worship ahead of time. Show them where to find the restroom, drinking fountain and play area, and remind them that they don’t have to stay there the whole time if they don’t want to. Explain that they can go outside with an adult to play or go for a walk.

Explain the purpose of this event. This is a coming together of families and friends – a reunion, so to speak, in order to:

· Say thank you, I love you, and goodbye to our special person who has died.

· Celebrate the life of our person who died.

· Honor, affirm, remember and pay our last respects to our person.

· Receive comfort and support and be with people who care.

· Share stories, laughter and tears with others who knew our special person.

· Allow for a search for meaning within each person’s belief and value system.

Help children anticipate seeing others expressing a wide variety of feelings, including laughter as well as tears. Let them know that any and all of these feelings are okay.

You can request a special viewing for children. If your funeral director provides such a service, he or she may be willing to meet with the children to explain what happens before and after a funeral. In any event, you’ll want to be sure that your children understand:

· What death is.

· That the funeral director carefully goes to the hospital or home to pick up the body.

· That the body is taken to the funeral home to be kept until it is buried or cremated.

· How embalming is like a blood exchange, only using special chemicals.

· How the body is made ready for viewing (bathed, dressed, hair combed, makeup applied).

· What the casket is, and how it looks: “A special box that holds the body, made of wood or metal, with carrying handles and a top that can be opened and closed.  The inside looks a little like a bed with a pillow.”

· How the person’s body is placed in the casket, usually with the top part of the lid open, with the person’s legs just underneath the lower part of the lid.

· What’s in the viewing room and what the children will see.

· That the viewing is a time when people can come to see the body of the person who has died and share their sadness with one another.

· Where the funeral service will be held (funeral home, religious house of worship, at the grave-site) and that it may include hymns, scripture readings, a short sermon, prayers for the person who has died, and eulogies (speeches) about the person’s life.

· If there will be a burial, how the casket is taken to the cemetery in a hearse (a special car that carries the casket with the dead body).

· How everyone follows in a funeral procession (a quiet parade of cars) to the cemetery (where dead people are buried).

· How everyone gathers around the grave (a special hole that’s already been dug in the ground) and words and prayers are spoken. Sometimes the casket is lowered into the grave and family members will gently toss handfuls of dirt onto the top; other times the cemetery workers cover the coffin with dirt after the people have left.

· That later a monument (a stone or marker) is placed at the grave to mark the place where the body is buried: “It tells Grandma’s name, birthday, date of death, and maybe a special saying or poem of loving memory. Later when we visit the cemetery, we can go to the grave to remember and feel close to Grandma, because the love we have for each other continues to live on, even after our special person has died.”
· That after the service, everyone will gather at the family home or some other location for more expressions of sympathy.

After the question-and-answer time, you can arrange for your children to have their own time to spend with their parents and the person who died to:

· Touch the person or the casket if they want to.

· Draw a picture.

· Visit with guests.

· Share memories of the person who has died.

If the casket is closed, or if viewing the body isn’t possible or culturally appropriate, you can still explain death to your child (see Explaining Death to Children).

If the body is cremated, explain the process of cremation: “There is a special building called a crematorium. In this building is a room with a special fire – not like any room in our house, and not like the fire in our fireplace. Because Grandma is dead, she will not feel anything at all during cremation. A body without life cannot feel heat or pain. This special fire is very, very hot – hot enough to melt the body and turn it into very fine, very soft ash. What is left of a dead body is called cremains. The cremains may be put into a small container called an urn.  The urn may be buried in the ground or placed in a special building, or the cremains may be scattered in a beautiful place, such as over a lake or on a mountain.”

If the person's body or body parts will be donated, explain that some families choose to have the person's body or body parts donated: "Grandma gave permission to the doctor to use part(s) of her body. It was her wish to give this very special gift to someone else."

What if your child doesn't want to go to the service? In a separate post, we'll discuss this and other special situations you may encounter, and suggest helpful ways you can deal with them.

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