Should Children Attend Funerals?

Funerals serve a valuable function. Every society has some form of ceremony to help the living acknowledge, accept and cope with the loss of a loved one. Whether or not a child should be included depends on the child and the situation. Attending without preparing the child can leave him or her confused and afraid. Not attending can isolate a child and often leads to regret and resentment later. If the child is old enough to understand and wants to participate, being included may help him or her accept the reality of the death while being supported by the love of family and friends.

Children learn important things from witnessing the death and grieving process. What impacts young children most when someone dies is the behavior and feelings of the people around them. It is from these responses that children come to understand that death is very important, sad and significantly different from most other events in life.  Knowing that children are learning from us during the process can be a motivating force for us to get the support necessary to go through the grieving process in healthy ways.

Think about which events might be useful for a child to participate in. In some cultures, everyone is included in the funeral or memorial ceremony. In other cultures, children are not included. It can be helpful for a child to witness the process of people saying goodbye and at the same time, it can be overwhelming or scary for children to see lots of adults out of control with grief. If you want to include a young child in a funeral or wake, it is important that someone can be with the child who will be able to attend to the child's feelings and needs. Children as young as 4 or 5 will probably be able to choose whether they are interested in looking at the dead person (if there is an open casket). If the adults around aren't hysterical, a child who chooses to look will probably be fine with the experience.

If children are going to a funeral, prepare them for what will happen before, during and after the services. Describe the planned activities, who will be there and how the dead person will look, feel and smell. Explain that the person is dead and will not come back to life. Explain that the dead person cannot talk to or see the child.  You also should prepare them for feelings they may have when things are happening—such as when the casket is closed.

In the end, the appropriateness of a child's participation in a funeral or wake depends on the expectations of the family of the deceased, your own family's beliefs and your child's ability to participate appropriately and benefit from the event.