Seen and heard: should young children attend funerals?

Charles 5 Comments

Posted by Richard Rawlinson

Some say death is too sanitised these days, with few people dying at home where all the family can say goodbye, and with professionals now taking over the duties of preparing the body for the funeral.

Has this social development made us over-protective of children, just as they’re now sometimes even shielded from losing in a sports match or failing an exam? Or is it prudent to exclude under-10s from funerals lest they become traumatised, or distract attending adults by being loud and needy?

For the nays’ side the debate, young mother and widow Rachel West says, ‘It’s hard to imagine what my daughters [aged four and six] would have gained from attending their dad’s funeral, but very easy to imagine the potential damage. I was in absolute pieces that day, and needed to be. That alone would have caused them immeasurable distress. I have remained strong in their presence at all other times, which I believe benefits them in these early years.’

On the ayes’ side, experts say attendance can be therapeutic for little ones as long as they’re well prepared. They advise giving child-friendly explanations about death beforehand: it’s one thing to say grandpa has gone to rest in a peaceful place and won’t be coming back, and another to find safe words to explain he’s in that box and is about to be buried or burnt.  

Ann Rowland of Child Bereavement UK also says children need to be forewarned about the possibility of adults crying and be given permission to cry, too. She also recommends an adult is on standby to take them out if they get bored or can’t handle being there.


  1. Charles

    Surely the key thing here is the effect on the child of seeing a usually calm parent deeply distressed? Ann Rowland’s comment seems particularly useful.

  2. Charles

    I feel that funerals are an important family occasion, and that children need to be invited to participate. If they are old enough to say no, go with that.
    In either case, be prepared to explain some uncomfortable questions – where has she gone/ is she coming back/can she breathe in there; and give fair warning that some grown ups may dab their eyes at times because they are sad.
    Give them a job to do ….. make a picture, light a candle, blow one out, pick a damp posy of greenery and put it on the coffin to start the ceremony, write their name, make a letter or a label and tie it on a poly-handle.
    But let them know they are still important in all this kerfuffle.

    Of course children don’t understand; any more than adults!
    But why make it any more weird than it has to be?

    An exception: if a parent really is in pieces. Then spare them that on the day, as Rachel West has done.
    But still involve them somehow; dad need not just disappear without trace or ceremony.

  3. Charles

    When I was 12 years old, my uncle died. I was desperate to go to his funeral but my parents wouldn’t let me.
    My other set of Grandparents came and picked me and my siblings up and took us to the beach. When we got back, my parents took us to his grave to lay some flowers. To this day I am still pretty angry that I wasn’t allowed to go.
    Now eight years ago my Great Grandmother died and we all went to her funeral. I was a funeral director by then and my brother and sister who were both in their 20’s, attended her funeral.
    Neither of them wanted to be there. Neither of them had been to a funeral before. My brother even asked me if our Nan was actually in the coffin!
    When our Aunt died, neither of them could attend. They didn’t want to. Nan’s funeral was bad enough for them and our aunt was so loved, they didn’t want to say goodbye.
    Grandad died a couple of years ago. He was our hero. The only reason why they went, was because the whole family was there.
    Grandad had great grandchildren and it wasn’t even an option that they would attend. We didn’t feel it was appropriate and Grandad certainly wouldn’t have approved of having small children there.
    I agree that it is an adults time to grieve without having to think of small children. I couldn’t have concentrated at my Grandad’s funeral with my nieces there. I wouldn’t have wanted them to see me upset either.
    For our family, children at a funeral isn’t for us. Teenagers, yes. Just not small children.
    As a funeral director, I have recently had a family that bought all their children in to say goodbye to their Grandfather. The oldest was 18, the youngest just two.
    It may well of helped those children and they were all there at the funeral too.
    It is up to each parent to decide what is right for their child. Some it will help, some it won’t.
    All I know, is that as a funeral director, I am not there to decide who should and who shouldn’t attend. I am there to carry out the wishes of each of my clients and it is up to them.

  4. Charles

    Funerals are (should be?) occasions when there is a lot of support for the grief-stricken. Children will see tears but will also see people hugging each other and giving each other comfort. Children will see adults in tears and grieving whether they go to the funeral or not.

  5. Charles

    It strikes me that what nobody’s saying here is that there are funerals and funerals.

    There are some horrendous dirges that even Count Dracula should be shielded from; and there are supportive, healing events that it would be a dereliction of parental duty to deprive a child of. Death is normal, and if the grown ups disappear to some mysterious thing you’re banned from and not allowed to know anything about, after a family member has already vanished with no rational explanation, you’ll grow up feeling guilty, furtive and frightened of death. And hopeless at arranging a funeral for someone you care about.

    Which most of us have, come to think of it.

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