Funerals for babies and children

Facing the unfaceable

No parent expects to face the death of their child. It goes completely against the natural order of things, whatever age they are and whatever the circumstances. Whether your child has died by miscarriage or stillbirth, whether they were a young child or a teenager. Whether it was expected or sudden. The death of a child shakes your reality in a way no other death can.

When your child dies, not only do you have to face the grief at their loss and the fact that their life has been cut short, you also have to contend with an entirely changed future, the ending of hopes and dreams and the loss of the life they could have lived. Siblings and grandparents will also all be impacted when a child dies. The family as it was is no more, and this change to everything familiar may feel unbearable.

You may feel numb, empty, furious, anxious or exhausted. You may feel guilty that in some way you were responsible and should have prevented what happened. The longing and emptiness you feel may never leave you. In the days immediately after a child dies, the physical impact of your grief can be profound and debilitating, and the need to organise a funeral for your child might feel too much to face.

Don’t be rushed into making any decisions. Allow time to soften the pain a little and allow yourself to catch up with the enormity of what has happened, and then gradually try to begin to think about how you would like to honour the life of this most precious child with a funeral ceremony.

It may feel impossible to know how to begin.Thinking about what to do next may feel completely overwhelming. Most of us will never have dreamt of having to organise a funeral for our child and won’t have any experience or framework to work with, so perhaps lean on a trusted friend or family member who can begin to help you articulate the shape or form that you need the funeral ceremony to take. Spend time talking it through with your family and friends, a funeral director, minister of religion or a celebrant. There may be cultural and faith-based reasons for the funeral to take place as quickly as possible but if not you may want to take your time to plan what to do. 

How you choose to say goodbye is a very personal decision. Whether your baby or child died at home, in a hospital or hospice, knowing that you have choices may help you to feel that any decisions you make or arrangements that you plan are the right ones for you, your family and your child. And you do have choices. You can choose to wash and dress your child, you can choose to have their body at home with you, you can choose to carry their coffin or shroud into the ceremony. This is your child, and you get to decide what happens during the days following their death.

Go with your instincts. If you feel the right thing for you is to have an intimate, private farewell ceremony then don’t feel pressured to do anything other than this. If it feels important to have a bigger, public ceremony for your community to be part of then that’s right for you and for your child. Be guided by your heart. 

Having your child with you at home

Some parents choose to have their baby or child at home for a while before the funeral where possible. Most UK hospitals and hospices and some funeral directors can provide you with a cold mattress or cot (called a cuddle cot) to keep your baby or child’s body cool, enabling you to spend longer with them.

If you have other children, it is important that they are involved in the decision about bringing their brother or sister’s body home. If possible, make sure that they have a trusted adult they can talk to about their feelings, so that if they find the situation difficult, they are able to express this without feeling they are being disloyal to you or to their sibling.

Being with the body of a sibling who has died can have a lasting impact on a child’s understanding of death and grief and loss, so think about how you can make this profoundly important experience as beautiful and gentle as possible for everyone. You will know your children better than anyone, so be guided by them – and be prepared for a lot of questions if they are old enough to express themselves.

Bringing your child home

If your child died in hospital or a hospice, you can ask a funeral director to bring your child home for you. Or you may want to collect your child yourself. If you want to do this, you’ll be given a form by hospital or hospice staff to confirm that your child’s body has been released to you. Be prepared to have to go to the mortuary to collect your child – this can be distressing but the staff will make it as easy for you as possible.

You will need to ensure that your child is gently wrapped in a blanket or duvet and completely covered when you take them from the hospital to your car to comply with the law – most mortuaries have designated parking immediately outside so that you don’t have to go through public areas.

Just as with adults, there’s no law to say that you have to use a funeral director to arrange the funeral. You may decide that you’d like some help for some if not all of the arrangements, so it’s important to find a good funeral director who will be able to do as much or as little as you want them to do. A good funeral director will talk you through the process to help you decide whether you need help or not, and be there to support you if you do.

The funeral

You can choose to have a burial or cremation, a religious or non-religious ceremony, hold it in a church, at the graveside, in your home or any venue that’s happy to have a coffin present.  If you own the land, you can legally arrange for the burial of your baby or child at home subject to regulations and guidelines from the Environment Agency and your local authority. A funeral director will be able to help you with any relevant paperwork. 

Depending on the age of your baby or child, many parents choose to take them to the funeral in their own car, or you could travel with the funeral director with the coffin on your lap or between you on the seat. You may want to hire a special hearse. All of this is possible and perfectly appropriate.

You may want to appoint a minister of religion, a celebrant, or you and your family and friends may want to lead the whole ceremony yourselves. If you appoint a celebrant, they’ll spend time with you talking through how you’d like the ceremony to be, drawing out your stories, helping you with rituals and music, thinking about  who might speak, how to make the venue personal and beautiful. If your baby was stillborn or died in the womb, you may want to combine the funeral with a naming ceremony.

Involving other children in the funeral

If there are other children in the family involving them in discussions about the funeral can really help. You may worry that it will be too upsetting for younger children but if they are prepared for what they will see and hear, most children find it helpful to attend and parents feel comforted by their other children being with them.

There’s lots of ways for children and young people to be involved. Choosing the music, writing a letter or poem, bringing flowers, drawing pictures, blowing bubbles, handing out orders of service. Older brothers and sisters may want to speak or write something for others to read. Even if they don’t understand what is happening now, they’ll probably feel glad in the future that they were included.

It is sensible to choose a trusted adult to be with your children so that you know they are being taken care of while you focus on the final moments with your child who has died. 

If children don’t want to come or you feel it’s better for them to not go to the ceremony, they can join any gathering afterwards or you could make a private ceremony just for you and them.

Financial help

If you’re struggling financially there is help available. Most funeral directors have reduced costs for children’s funerals and most crematoria, cemeteries and burial grounds don’t charge you anything at all. Talk through with them what costs there may be and what they can claim back on your behalf.

The Children’s Funeral Fund for England can help to pay for some of the costs of a funeral for a child under 18 or a baby stillborn after the 24th week of pregnancy. See here for how that works.

If you live in Wales see here for information, in Scotland it’s here and Northern Ireland here.

The Child Funeral Charity supports families in England and Wales to pay for other funeral expenses not covered by the government.

You could also set up a crowdfunding page – your family, friends, neighbours and local community will probably want to help in any way they can.

Support going forward

SANDS is the leading stillbirth and neonatal death charity and offers bereaved parents help and guidance including support groups and a confidential helpline.

Child Bereavement UK offers free, confidential bereavement support to children and adults anyone affected by the death of a child.  

The Compassionate Friends is a charity that supports bereaved parents and their families. They have a helpline that is staffed by bereaved parents, open 365 days a year between 10.00 – 16.00 and 19.00 – 22.00 Call 0345 123 2304

The Good Grief Trust is run by bereaved people for bereaved people and brings together all UK bereavement services under one umbrella.

Pregnancy loss

Until recently, loss of a baby before 24 weeks gestation was not officially recognised.

In February 2024, the government introduced a baby loss certificate available to parents or surrogate parents who lost a baby in England before the 24th week of pregnancy.

Initially these certificates are available for pregnancy losses after 1st September 2018, although this is likely to be extended.

The baby loss certificates are not legal documents and are a voluntary choice to obtain, but they are an official recognition of the devastating loss of a pregnancy. 

Details here.

Pregnancies that end with the stillbirth of a baby after 24 weeks gestation must be registered within 42 days – details of how to register a stillbirth are here.

No matter at what stage of pregnancy a baby is lost, a ceremony can still be held to acknowledge the deep grief that may accompany this experience. 

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