While there are no hard and fast rules about children attending a funeral, it is an important event for a family and children should be included to the extent to which they are able. It’s important to remember that children grieve, too, and their feelings should be respected. The final decision depends on the age of the child, the temperament of the child, parental sensitivities, as well as the traditions and values of the families involved.
Young children may not be able to sit through an entire wake or service without being disruptive. For the benefit of all in attendance, families with young children may choose to join the funeral for a brief time or they can designate a trusted person who is well known to the children to take them out of the service if it becomes overwhelming.
According to A to Z of Manners and Etiquette, young children may not understand what’s happening during a wake or funeral and may become confused or upset if they witness others crying or distressed. Kate Mackinnon, of Winston's Wish, the child bereavement charity, says that “with adequate preparation, it's OK for a child of any age to go to a funeral, if they want to.”
In a 2013 article in The Guardian, Mackinnon says that preparation begins by ensuring that the child understands the concept of death, including “that the body has stopped working, that it doesn't need food or air and can't feel pain.”
Also, remember that children take things literally, so don’t use euphemisms such as “gone to a better place” or “passed away.”
Preparing children for a funeral should also include an explanation of the various parts of the day, such as whether or not there will be a wake or viewing, what will happen during the service, and what to expect at the graveside. Children also need to know that the purpose of a funeral is to hold a special ceremony to honor and remember their loved one, support each other during a sad time, and celebrate the life of the person who has died.
Parents and caregivers can use the funeral as a learning opportunity to teach youngsters what happens when death occurs. There are many wonderful books for children on the subject of death and dying, such as Always and Forever by Alan Durant and The Next Place by Warren Hanson. For more titles, visit weareteachers.com for “16 Books That Talk About Death for Kids, Tweens, and Teens.”
One of the most important things parents and caregivers can do for children is to give them choices, according to The Dougy Center, the National Center for Grieving Children & Families. Children have opinions and will feel valued to be asked their thoughts. It’s important to give children an opportunity to say goodbye to someone who has died in a way that feels appropriate to them, including attending the funeral, in order to support the healing process. “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.”
The Dougy Center offers a book for parents called What About The Kids: Understanding Their Needs in Funeral Planning and Services. To order a copy of the book, visit the center’s online bookstore or contact The Dougy Center at 503-775-5683.