Explaining Funeral Services and Burial Preparation to a Child

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rainbow hand One of the more challenging topics within a loss discussion is that of funeral services, burial and cremation. When preparing for these conversations, it will be important to think about what exposure a young person has already had with funerals and or memorial services. This context can help guide conversation.

Below are some questions to consider when explaining these rituals to children.

Why do we have services?

  • Explain the purpose of the service. Does it have religious affiliations and what does that entail? Or is it a celebration of life? Will there be any rituals wish for the child(ren) would participate in? If so, explain them and offer them the choice to participate or not.

When and where will the services be held?

  • Some services can be held at one or multiple locations and last one or a few days. Funeral homes, churches, mosques, cemeteries or a school auditorium are sometimes used. Explain to the child the process in which the services will be set up.

Who will be attending the service(s)?

  • A child may be overwhelmed with the number of people who show up for the service. Some people they may know, many they may not. They also will see a lot of people crying and showing emotion. It's OK to remind them that although they too may be feeling sad, it's OK if they don't cry. We all feel and show emotions at different times and in different ways. Allow them the choice to take a break when needed.

What will the body look like?

  • Will the body be cremated?
    • Consider the child's developmental age when thinking about explaining cremation and what details they may or may not need. Gentler words such as a "hot room" and "ash" would be appropriate to use in the conversation. Also talk about where the ash and or remains will be stored (urn/box) and kept (buried/in the house).
  • Open casket?
    • Explain what a casket is, as adults we sometimes assume that kids know what words mean when they don't. Some children may not notice any change when seeing their loved one in a casket. Others will make comments that they look different. Never force a child to go to the casket and or touch/kiss the body. If you know there will be notable changes to the body, talk about those changes with the child beforehand. Prepare the child that at one point, the casket lid will shut and will not be re-opened.

Create opportunities for the child to help with planning or participate in other family rituals such as picking pictures for a collage board or choosing an item to be placed in casket. Never assume or force a child to do something they are not comfortable doing. Ask permission and offer choices when appropriate. When possible, have a point person assigned to any child who may need a break during the service. They can be helpful in taking them for a walk or having an activity bag packed for distraction.

Looking for additional tips? Read contributions from CHOP’s expert bereavement specialists.

Kelly Goldin, BS, CCLS, CTRS, Jennifer Lemisch, MA, ATR-BC, LPC, Elizabeth Spellman, MSW, LCSW