Dying to Talk: Ceremonies

It is easy for an adult to assume that a child will know what a funeral is and why we have them. In reality, few do, unless they have previously experienced the death of someone they know. Any information that they already have has probably come from the media or via overheard, usually misunderstood, conversations.

A good starting point is to talk about what a funeral is and its purpose. What you say will be influenced by their culture, beliefs or religion so the following are just suggestions to talk about this emotive subject in a broad, open way with children. Do first check that the child understands what being dead means. A child who has not quite grasped the concept of “no life” may be distressed by the thought of someone being buried or burnt.

The key principles are: the importance of being honest, using the word “dead” rather than “lost” or “gone” and using simple language that a young child will understand.

Click on the tabs below for advice on how to talk with children about funerals, burial and cremation:

  • A very young child, toddler, or even a baby can be there with the rest of the family. Although they will not understand at the time, it is when older that children appreciate knowing that along with everyone else they were a part of this important event. Parents may ask someone close to their child to join them in case the children get upset or become restless and want to go out. It is hard to have to deal with their own grief and that of their children’s. Children may want to take along a favourite toy or book to occupy them. It is also a good idea to let whoever is organising the funeral know that you will be taking young children.
  • Older children can be given the choice to attend. As long as a child is prepared for what is going to happen and what they will see, it is a helpful experience. Of the children that we work with at St Elizabeth Hospice, none have regretted going to the funeral. Those who were not given the option often resent not being included, despite this decision having been made with the best of intentions.
  • If children chose not to attend, remember that there are other alternatives such as a private family farewell or doing something special to remember the person who has died.

  • Involving the children in the funeral planning helps them to feel included and generates opportunities to share thoughts and feelings. Young children may chose to make a drawing or card which could be placed on the coffin. You could ask them if they have a favourite poem or a song they would like included. If possible, take them along in advance for a quick look at where the funeral is taking place. This will help them to feel more secure and better prepared because they know what to expect.

Below are suggestions of words you may wish to use:

 

When someone dies we have a special ceremony called a funeral. Because Granny has died, we are going to have one just for her. At the funeral, everyone can get together to remember things Granny did, to think about how much we loved her, and to say a very special goodbye to her.

 

We are going to have the funeral at…………….on…………………………

 

You can have a think about if you would like to be there, you do not have to decide right now and if you change your mind that is OK. You can ask any questions you want, I will try to answer or if I don’t know, we can ask the man who is helping us, he is called a funeral director.

 

At the funeral, Granny’s body will be in a special box called a coffin. The coffin will have a lid on it and granny’s dead body will be inside the coffin. Remember, because she is dead and no longer alive, granny’s body doesn’t work and she does not need her body anymore. The coffin will be at the front and it will be made of brown wood with shiny handles (describe whatever applies).

 

At the funeral we will sing some hymns (songs). You can help us to choose which ones if you like. We will also ask people to say something about Granny, things such as how she loved growing flowers and how she wasn’t very good at singing but sang anyway. Can you think of any stories that we can tell about her? Some people get very sad at funerals and cry a little, some people cry a lot, others don’t cry at all. It doesn’t matter who does what.

 

This may well be as much information as the child needs for now. However, they may ask about what happens afterwards. How you reply will depend on whether there is to be a burial or cremation.

 

Below are suggestions of words you may wish to use:

 

At the end of the funeral, the coffin will be taken to the graveyard (cemetery). In the graveyard (cemetery), a very deep hole will have been dug. This is called a grave. The coffin will be gently lowered into the grave and covered up with earth. Eventually, grass will grow on top of it.

 

When we feel ready we can put a headstone on the grave. This will have Granny’s name on it so that everyone will know where her body is buried. We can visit the grave sometimes to think about and remember Granny.

What you say about cremation needs careful thought and will be influenced by the age of the child. Some children will be affected by the use of the words burnt or burning as they associate fire with fear and danger.

 

Two approaches are suggested below, one less direct than the other.

  • Granny’s body will be turned into soft powdery ashes at the crematorium. The ashes are then put into a pot called an urn. Some people scatter the ashes somewhere very special to the person who has died. Or we can bury the ashes in the ground, we do not have to decide this now. We can decide together what we want to do with Granny’s ashes.
  • At the end of the funeral, some curtains will be drawn around the coffin and we will not see it again. After everyone has gone the coffin, with the dead body, is put into a special, very hot oven to be burnt and turned into ash. We do not watch this bit. The ashes are then put into a special pot called an urn. Some people scatter the ashes somewhere very special to the person who has died. Or we can bury them in the ground, we do not have to decide this now. We can decide together what we want to do with Granny’s ashes.

Some children find visiting the grave or place where ashes are scattered comforting. Others view graveyards and cemeteries as frightening or unwelcoming places. Reassure them that films and television programmes that show graveyards as scary places, full of ghosts, are not the real thing.

 

Others can find it bewildering, especially if they are still a bit confused with the meaning of being dead and where dead bodies go. If your beliefs support the concept of heaven, this can be comforting as children, Christian or not, associate heaven with safety and peace. However, do make sure that you say Granny has died and gone to heaven.

 

Ask the child if they would like to visit the graveside, and if so, suggest that they leave some flowers or a memento. Some families integrate the visit into a walk or some other activity. This helps to normalize the visit. A child who clearly does not want to go should not be forced.

 

You may find the video below useful in help children and young people understand funerals:

 

Sign up to receive monthly updates

Share your story