Children and Funerals

CHILDREN AND FUNERALS: HELPING PARENTS DECIDE

William G. Hoy

You may have asked or heard parents who ask: “Should we take the kids to the funeral?” When presenting a workshop recently, I heard a colleague say, “Funerals are no place for children.”

Some parents seriously struggle with the decision about whether and how to include children in the service. Though we were part of a young community and a young congregation without many deaths, Debbie and I decided to take our children to their first funeral when they were about six and four years old. Some friends applauded our decision while others seemed appalled. Our thinking at the time was that we would not have even considered excluding them from a grandparent’s funeral and we wanted their first experience to be with the death of someone they knew but not as intimately as a close family member. They were both curious and intrigued, asking lots of questions without the deep emotional connection that would have been present if a family member or close friend had died. Looking back on that experience, I am glad we did it the way we did.

When I was a young clinician, I suggested that children should go to funerals when they were old enough to sit still, acknowledging that such a rule surely let some adults off the hook for attendance. As I have matured in my own thinking and practice, I have determined that age has less to do with the decision than the child’s relationship and readiness. While some suggest that we should neither force nor forbid attendance, I tend to lean more heavily in the direction of strong encouragement to attend a family funeral and I would be unlikely to easily agree to non-attendance at a family funeral if I had an older child or teen. Funerals are family and community affairs with many benefits to those who attend. Not only do they help make real the fact of the death as a part of life, but funerals also provide an opportunity to reflect on deeply held values.

We live in a society where the normative behavior is primarily self-focused; children and adolescents tend to be self-focused as a feature of their developmental stage. Therefore, I think participation in family events of significance are not nearly as “optional” as some professionals seem to think. Just because we expect a child’s or teen’s attendance at the services for a family member or close friend does not mean that it is not a potentially anxiety-producing experience. However, the first day in a new school is also an anxiety-producing experience and we expect kids to endure that.

In preparing young people to attend, I think it is best to describe with photos what will happen. Younger children benefit from hearing about what to expect using the five senses: here is what you will see, hear, touch, smell, and taste. Parents can help kids know about the music and words that they will hear, the flowers they will see and smell, and the food they will eat at the repast or luncheon. These descriptions can be meaningful ways to engage in conversation about the significance of the person’s life and his or her impact on the family and community.

I have played a game with young children in which we quietly pick out the flowers they think would be Grandma’s (or whomever the deceased is) favorite. We talk about colors and fragrances, looking for the ones she grew in her garden. This conversation provokes opportunities to talk about the people who sent the flowers and what their relationship was to the family and the person who died. In setting up flowers, most funeral directors arrange flowers sent from close family members nearest the casket so looking at the flower cards on these arrangements with the kids will most likely yield the names of people even young children know well.

 Older children and teens can spend some time online exploring an understanding of funerals. With a parent’s help, they can search the internet for images and these can provoke a conversation about what is happening in the picture. When I ran a Google┬« search on the term funeral and limited the results to images, I found dozens of photos that picture such things as caskets, cemeteries, flowers, candles, mourners, and hearses. If the parent is familiar with the family’s traditions, more specific search terms like Catholic Native American funeral yield photos that are even less generic. And of course image searches on the web are linked to the websites where the photo appears so there is often supporting content to explain the photo.

One way to enhance the meaning for children and teens attending a funeral is to make sure they have meaningful opportunities to participate. Helping children create pictures, poems, and letters to place in the casket or cremation container can be a meaningful activity for children and parents alike. Children and teens can be involved in various parts of the liturgy including the presentation of the Eucharistic elements in a Catholic funeral mass to reading a favorite poem or scripture during the service. I was present at the funeral of an infant who died soon after birth and the minister led the baby’s eight siblings in singing a simple children’s song at the funeral. When my father died, each of the grandchildren placed a rose on the casket as a simple goodbye at the cemetery.

Studies over the last two decades have provided a consistently positive appraisal of the importance of kids at funerals. In abstracting their qualitative interview study of seven- to twelve-year olds, Softing, Dyregrov, and Dyregrov (2016), wrote, “Our study indicates that it was very important for the children to be included in the rituals and accordingly be recognized as grievers alongside adults. Being included contributes to legitimating their status as a ‘full’ member of the family system, with an equal status to adult grievers in an important and vulnerable phase of the family’s life. The children were pleased that they through ritual performances were given the opportunity to ‘see for themselves,’ both in order to better comprehend and accept the reality of the loss and to take farewell with their loved ones” (p. 148).

Another study by Fristad and colleagues (2001) found that children 6-18 who participated in the funeral visitation after their parent’s death fared much better psychologically than children whose families did not have a visitation, especially when examined at 13-months and 25-months after the death. Funeral participation is widely recommended by clinicians experienced in bereavement, in large part because of the benefits participation in these experiences provide to family members of every age group (Hoy, 2013).

At least in North America, it is interesting that the question of whether or not children should attend funerals is mostly heard from white, economically advantaged parents; this question does not occur nearly as frequently among families of color. My clinical experience indicates that children’s attendance at funerals in Black, Southeast Asian, and Hispanic families is generally expected, and my research among clergy and funeral professionals in these communities confirms my observations.

Parents and other caregivers make decisions about the welfare of their children based on a number of variable values and priorities. Undoubtedly, parents want to do what is “best” for their children, readily embracing their roles to provide for and protect their offspring.

References.

Brooten, D., & Youngblut, J. M. (2017). School aged children's experiences 7 and 13 months following a sibling's death. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 26(4), 1112. doi:10.1007/s10826-016-0647-7

Bunch-Lyons, B. (2015). 'Ours is a business of loyalty': African American funeral home owners in southern cities. Southern Quarterly, 53(1), 57-71.

Fristad, M. A., Cerel, J., Goldman, M., Weller, E. B., & Weller, R. A. (2001). The role of ritual in children’s bereavement. Omega: Journal of Death & Dying, 42 (4), 321-339.

Hoy, W.G. (2013). Do funerals matter? The purposes and practices of death rituals in global perspective. New York, NY: Routledge.

Softing, G.H., Dyregrov, A., & Dyregrov, K. (2016). Because I’m also part of the family: Children’s participation in rituals after the loss of a parent or sibling-- A qualitative study from the children’s perspective. Omega: Journal of Death & Dying, 73(2) 141–158. DOI: 10.1177/0030222815575898

The Author: For more than three decades, William G. Hoy has been counseling with the bereaved, supporting the dying and their families, and teaching colleagues how to provide effective care. After a career in congregation, hospice, and educational resource practice, he now holds a full-time teaching appointment as Clinical Professor of Medical Humanities at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. His most recent book is Bereavement Groups and the Role of Social Support: Bridging Theory, Research, and Practice (Routledge, 2016).

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