My friend is dying. She has battled cancer for many years, even beating the odds and living years longer than the doctors ever expected. But now it looks as if the cancer is winning and that she does not have long to live. A loving grandmother, she has asked me to help her family arrange a special funeral for her, to be attended by her grandchildren and their friends. This would be a service separate from the one adults will attend.

You may ask, "Why should children attend funerals at all?" Some of the reasons why it's important include the following:

  • Rituals help people, including children, with their grief.

  • Children want to be included in important events and often resent being sent away.

  • Children want to offer and receive the love and support of others.

  • At highly emotional times like the death of a loved one, children need to be connected with their families.

  • Funerals offer a chance to say good-bye to a loved one, and saying good-bye is important.

  • Viewing the body, when religious beliefs allow, and attending the funeral will help children accept the reality of what has happened. If kept away, young children especially may fantasize that the person hasn't really died, but is off on a trip and will return one day.

All of these are reasons why I support having children attend funerals. However, at an adult funeral, children may lose some of the potential value of the event because of the adult language and rituals might go over their heads. The length of the service could cause kids to get bored and act out. But a shorter funeral could be geared to their level of understanding. It could also give them a chance to participate directly in the planning and the service itself, adding to the healing effect.

In the case of my ailing friend, I have agreed to do what she asked. Carrying out her wishes will be my own way of grieving.

Arrangements for this kind of service can be made with your church, synagogue, or funeral home, and can be initiated by the immediate family, a relative, or even a friend. The first thing to do is to discuss it with the children and find out if they would like to have such a service. Then ask your religious leader or funeral director to arrange for a place and time. Who should attend? The family should decide. Perhaps it should be limited to the children in the family. If neighborhood children have been affected by the death, they should be included. It should be conducted before a regular adult funeral, preferably the previous afternoon. I would not recommend that the two ceremonies be back-to-back. A funeral service will open up a lot of questions for kids and provide opportunities for discussion that you won't want to rush.

In that first meeting with the children, you might explain why we have funerals and why we do what we do with the body of someone we love (burial or cremation). Then introduce the idea that they could have their own special funeral for the person who died. If they like the idea, ask them for their thoughts on songs to sing, prayers to recite, and things to do. You may be surprised by how enthusiastically they enter into the discussion.

The ceremony itself can be a simple viewing with songs and prayers by the children. It can last from a half hour to an hour, depending on the children and how involved they become. While circumstances will vary, the following are some suggestions that can help you plan a children's funeral:

  • On the day of the event, plan to meet with the children in a separate room to talk for a few minutes about the funeral. Make introductions so the children know everyone. If the casket is to be open, talk about what dead bodies look and feel like, and invite the children to touch their loved one if they wish, reassuring them that there is no harm in this. Discuss the ceremony itself and what to expect. Talk about feelings. Invite questions.

  • Then go together into the room where the loved one lies. As the children view the body in the casket, talk about special memories they have of him or her, reasons they loved him or her so.

  • Recite the special prayers selected by the children and sing the songs they've chosen.

  • Provide each child a few moments to look at the loved one, touch her if he or she wishes, ask questions, and perhaps place a flower or personal memento in the casket.

  • Hand each child a biodegradable helium balloon on which to write a special "good-bye" to their loved one. Then, as the service is ending, take the balloons outside and let them go while singing a song or saying a special prayer.

  • Finally, take the children back inside where there will be some refreshments available along with drawing paper and a supply of colorful markers. Invite the children to draw a picture or write a story about what they are thinking or feeling.

  • As the children are leaving, give each one an opportunity to choose a "comfort rock" as a keepsake from this event. (I invented the term, but these are simply polished rocks purchased at a local craft store.) Let them choose the rocks that feel good in their hands or have colors that have special meaning to them. Suggest that they keep them in a safe place where they can find them whenever they are feeling sad or lonely.

  • Another option is to provide the children with "angel feathers" (also purchased at a local craft store). Tell them to rub the feathers on their cheeks. How does it make them feel? Of course, the softness of the feather on their cheeks is likely to make them smile and feel better. They can keep these as mementos as well.

  • Parents of the children attending such a service should be invited to attend as observers but not play an active role. However, you may want to have your pastor or rabbi lead the service as long as it remains a service the children see as their own.

    It is always sad that we must have funerals, and sadder still when death deprives a child of a loved one. But funerals help survivors grieve their loss, and this is true for children as well as adults. Funerals shared by parents and children bring closeness between them that will remain special through the years.

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