Should children attend funerals? Ask yourself these 5 questions when deciding whether to take your child to a funeral service.
“Do we bring them to the funeral?” I asked my husband.
My aunt had just passed away, and my relatives and I were making plans to attend services to honor her life.
No gut feelings swayed me either way on whether to bring the boys to the wake or ceremony. No clear rules or AAP-recommended guidelines or expert advice made it certain whether to bring young children to a funeral or not.
And I can see why. A funeral is an emotional event, and with so many factors to consider, set rules aren’t practical or realistic.
Should children attend funerals?
So… is there a certain funeral etiquette or general guideline with taking infants and children?
For most of us, the answer isn’t always so clear. Too many pros and cons muddle what seems like a simple question.
In short, there is no one single answer.
Instead, ask yourself several questions to help you decide whether to bring your kids to a funeral or not. These questions will help you decide what is appropriate for your particular situation:
1. What is your child’s relationship with the deceased?
One factor to consider is the relationship between your child and the deceased. If she was close to a grandparent, attending funeral plans would be a chance to address her grief rather than saying grandpa has died and will no longer visit.
Even more telling is if it seems strange not to bring your child. If the service was for any of my immediate family members, there would be no question that my kids would attend—doing otherwise would seem unnatural.
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2. How much do you need to grieve?
Unless you bring a babysitter, you or your partner will most likely be the ones taking care of your child during the funeral.
Sure, you might be able to pass him off to other family and friends (especially if he’s already familiar with them). But ask yourself whether you need time to grieve without the added role of caring for him.
For instance, you may not want to explain every little detail about the service or burial, or even questions he might have about life and death. Perhaps you worry how he’ll react seeing you unravel in tears.
And if you expect needing this time to grieve, leaving him home just to give you the opportunity to say goodbye in peace.
3. What’s your child’s threshold for long funeral services?
I’ve been to funerals and seen kids who can sit quietly—front row and everything—without a peep or disturbance. I’ve also attended funerals and seen kids getting frustrated and interrupting the services.
Funeral services can be long and stifling to little kids who may not understand or aren’t old enough to sit for long periods of time. A child who can sit quietly for stretches of time would be easier to take than another who might disrupt the service with a tantrum.
Consider your child’s maturity and age as well. A teenager is much more likely to understand the rituals of a funeral than a toddler.
4. What are the logistics for taking the kids?
Sometimes, regardless of any of the above mentioned, logistics simply determine whether to take your child or leave him home.
Maybe you need to drive out of town to attend the service and can’t schedule a last-minute weekend sitter and need to take her with you. On the other hand, maybe airline flights are too expensive for the entire family to attend, so she’ll need to stay home.
Plans can often dictate whether we take the kids or not.
5. Are you trying to “protect” your child from death?
We can’t avoid death, even from our kids.
At some point, a discussion about death will happen, from noticing a withered flower arrangement to the passing of a pet. Kids may not understand the concept of death, but not taking them to funerals for the sake of avoiding the ensuing discussion might not be the best reason.
You may not want to expose your child to the graphic and difficult aspects of dying. I didn’t want to bring my kids to visit my aunt during her last days, as her appearance was so different and would probably confuse and even frighten them.
But trying to protect her from what can be a healthy discussion may not be the best reason to avoid bringing her to a funeral.
That said, if the only thing you’re worried about is her fear of seeing the body, remember that she can still attend without viewing the coffin or open casket.
How to explain a funeral service to kids
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Whether you bring your kids or not, they’ll still ask what a funeral is and where and why you’re going. Here are a few tips to help discuss death and funerals:
- Explain death and sadness as honestly and clearly as you can, at their level.
- Use clear—even frank—language as opposed to vague ones (say that the person has died, not “passed away” or “gone on a journey”).
- Describe what they can expect. Talk about how people are dressed, what a cemetery is, and that they’ll probably see a lot of them cry.
- Explain that people are crying because doing so makes them feel better (so your kids aren’t distraught with everyone’s tears).
- Don’t force them to view the body.
- Bring quiet toys to keep them occupied.
- Read books about life and death, such as A Grand Old Tree by Mary Newell DePalma.
So… did I end up taking my kids to my aunt’s funeral?
No, I didn’t. The main factors for me were their relationship to the deceased, their temperaments and ages, and my need to grieve.
While I was close to my aunt and cousins, my kids weren’t too familiar with her. I also wasn’t sure whether they’d be able to sit for hours without being disruptive. And I wanted to be able to simply say goodbye and be among my family, free of child care duties.
This isn’t always the case for every funeral I attend. In fact, since then, my husband and I took the kids to another funeral with no problems. With age and varying degrees of relationships, I’ll likely find myself taking them to some, while leaving them home for others.
Of those who attended my aunt’s funeral, some brought their kids while others didn’t. Clearly there is no set rule, and each family did what worked best for them.
Hopefully these questions will help you decide the best for your family and the person you are honoring during the funeral.
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