You know your child best and whether it feels right for them to go the funeral will depend on a range of factors - such as their age, their relationship to the person who has died, and whether they want to go. There is no right or wrong answer. But offering your child the option to go is one opportunity for them to say ‘goodbye’ to a special person.
Many people worry that their children are too young to go to a funeral and won’t understand what is happening. But most children have a full understanding of death by the time they are about 8-10 years old and many younger children will have enough understanding to go to the funeral.
It is different for every family and every child, and you need to do what you feel is right for you and your child. However, the best solution is often to offer your child the opportunity to go if they would like to. Many children will never have been to a funeral before.
If you decide to give them the choice, explain what will happen in language they understand, and remind them that it’s ok to ask questions. You can also remind them that there are lots of different ways to remember someone and say goodbye besides attending the funeral - so this is not the only thing they can do.
When they understand all of this, you can ask them if they would like to come, and you can decide together what to do.
How can I explain the funeral to them?
You will need to explain what happens at a funeral to them in a way that they can understand. This will help them make a choice about whether they want to go, and know what to expect if they do decide to go. Children take in as much information as they can cope with at one time, so keep your explanations quite short to start with. Your children may come back later with more questions and may need time to decide.
If you are stuck for words you could say something like: ‘A funeral is a special time when all the people who knew our special person come together to remember them and to say goodbye. There will be readings, prayers and music, and people will think about the person’s life and how they will remember them. Some people will be very sad and may cry a lot and other people will be thinking about the good memories they have.’
How do I explain about burial or cremation?
Children are naturally curious about the world, and often want to understand how things work and what will happen. They may ask you lots of questions about some of the very practical aspects of death and dying - such as what happens to the person’s body and what it means to be cremated. They will appreciate you being as honest as you can be. They will also accept if you say that it is hard for you to talk about things because they make you feel sad.
Before you start explaining things to them, it is always good to ask them what they know. This can help you understand any misconceptions they might have, and the kinds of language they use. You may want to start by explaining to them again about death. And you also need to explain that burial or cremation doesn’t hurt the person who has died, as they cannot feel pain any more.
How can I help them cope if they go to the funeral?
Children who are old enough to go to school have learned to be able to sit and concentrate for short periods. They will know that this is a special occasion even if there are still some things they do not fully understand. Younger children may find it helpful if they can take their favourite toy.
You can tell that someone will be there who will go outside with them if they find it too difficult. This person does not have to be you - ask someone who knows the child well and who will not be as involved in the service as you.
This could be a friend, so close family do not have to leave during the ceremony. It may also help if there are going to be other children at the funeral, so ask other people if their children would like to come. If you explain the things that are likely to be new to them, they will be able to manage this big event just as they managed going to nursery or to school.
What if they don’t want to go?
Children should not be forced to go to the funeral if, after you have explained what will happen, they choose not to. It is important that they feel it is ok to choose not to go, and they are not made to feel guilty. You should remind them that there are different ways to remember someone and there is not a single ‘right way’ to say goodbye.
You may want to think about ways you can do things together after the funeral to mark the occasion - such as visiting the crematorium or cemetery together, or lighting candles.
You also need to create an alternative that will feel right for them, such as going to a friend’s house or going to school. If they choose to go to school, let the teachers know what is happening, so that support will be there if it is needed.
What if I don’t want the children to be there?
Lots of people feel like this, so don’t feel bad. Children can understand your explanation that grown-ups find things difficult too and that funerals are very sad and painful times for everybody. You could ask them if they would like to write something about the person which could be read out. Or, they could choose a hymn, song or piece of music to be played during the service. Reassure them that you or someone else will talk to them about the funeral afterwards.
Try to make sure that this happens as soon as possible, so they do not feel left out. You could take home the cards from the floral tributes, or ask someone to take photographs of the flowers which you could show them. If you think about ways to make a special time together remembering the person who has died, they can share this with you. Rituals are important for children and they will appreciate you doing this.
How can children feel involved in the funeral?
There are different ways you can involve children, whether or not they go to the funeral itself. How they are involved will depend on their age, their level of understanding and what you feel they can cope with. They could help choose the readings, hymns or music. They could choose the flowers and write on the card. If they are attending the funeral, they could give out the order of service sheets.
Children and young people may want to read something they or someone else has written. Remember that you can decide what you would like included and talk it through with the person who will be conducting the funeral.
More information and guidance about supporting a child who has been bereaved