What to Tell Children About Funerals

I was recently browsing through the new gift shop at Mission San Juan Capistrano, admiring the jewelry and slowly making my way to my favorite corner of the store; the book section on Grief. I’m always finding new and intriguing titles there and this time, I stumbled upon a series of children’s books on grief that deeply impressed me.

We hear the debate about children being at funerals pretty often around here and while we always encourage people to bring their children, they don’t always agree with us. Well, to my surprise, in the book What Happens When Someone Dies? the question is never even addressed, it is just automatically assumed that children will be there and explains with a delicate, gentle and uncomplicated voice what the child will experience.

Let me give you an example:

Under the question, What should I Say or Do at the Funeral Home? the author writes,

“At the funeral home, people talk about what they remember about the person who died. They talk about nice and sometimes funny times they had with the person. You may hear laughter as they remember happy times.

If you walk up to the casket, take your mom or dad’s hand. We all need each other – especially in sad times. Sometimes the casket is up too high for you to see. Ask someone to help you up.”

I don’t know about you but reading that made me feel better. The explanations are simple but address the hard stuff and don’t shy away from it.

I remember being told when it comes to children to only answer the questions they ask you. You don’t explain the complexities of life and death to your 5 year old when they’ve only asked you why you’re sad. Your answer may lead to more questions and that’s ok, but sometimes children can feel overwhelmed by information that they can’t process or understand. This book is an excellent resource. If you don’t want to read the whole book to them you can still reference this book to help you answer their questions in your own way.

What Happens When Someone Dies? addresses some tough questions like:

  • Why do people die?
  • Does it hurt to die?
  • Are there other ways people say goodbye? (an explanation of cremation)
  • What happens at the funeral home?
  • What should I say or do at the funeral home?
  • Why are some people at the funeral home happy and laughing?
  • What should I do at the church funeral service?
  • What happens at the cemetery?
  • When will everything be ok again?

*These books do have a religious overtones referencing Heaven, God and prayer. I don’t feel they are heavy-hitting but these books may not be appropriate in their entirety for particular faiths.

I continue to be surprised by families who disagree with our funeral arrangers who see day-in and day-out the power of ceremony and how children react and benefit. Our arrangers are experts who can testify endlessly to the power of being included and present at a funeral; but too often a family’s fears and sense of protection keep children from experiencing a ceremony that would actually bring them even greater peace.

A recent article entitled, “Should Children Attend Funerals?” states that despite public opinion, “child bereavement experts are united in believing that children should be offered the chance to attend funerals, regardless of how young they are.” The article goes on to quote one of these experts, Helen McKinnon, who says, “I’ve never yet come across anyone who regrets going to a funeral as a child. But what we do hear time and time again is those who wish they had gone and in many of those cases, it’s prevented them from starting on their grieving journey.”

This same article quotes Christina Brady who had to attend school the same day as her mother’s funeral. She asks the powerful question: “… if adults need a ritual to mark the passing of someone dear to them, doesn’t it follow that children – who are less able than anyone to make sense of the mess of feelings that follow a death – need it even more?”

The answer seems simple: Yes, they do.

There are two messages – this book offers one of understanding, acceptance, and compassion. The other only perpetuates the great fear and avoidance of death our culture has adopted. Let’s give our children the right message.

|| what do you think?

– Where do you stand in this debate and why?

– What answers were you given as a child when you asked about death and how did they help or hinder your understanding?

Other books on tough subjects available in this thoughtful series are:

Molly Keating
Molly Keating
Hello! I'm Molly and I run & manage the Blog here at O'Connor. I grew up in a mortuary with a mortician for a father who's deep respect for the profession inspired me to give working at a mortuary a try. Work at O'Connor has brought together two of my deep passions, writing & grief awareness. In 2016 I earned Certification in the field of Thanatology, the study of Death, Dying and Bereavement. I am honored to be able to speak on these taboo topics with knowledge, compassion, and a unique perspective. I want to sincerely thank you for following & reading the blog, I hope that this is a healing place for you.


  1. Anne says:

    Hi Molly,
    Here’s my two cents…
    My mom died when I was 4 1/2 and dad when I was 5. Mother’s casket was in our living room for calling times (This was 1952 and how it was done.) and I dragged the chair from the dining room when I was alone to get up there to see her, touch her and kiss her. I had been told and understood that this was just her body and she was already in heaven. I attended both funerals with my siblings. A group picture following the funeral showed me genuinely smiling. The family and friends around, and me being included apparently helped me.
    My great granddaughter, Elisabeth, at 5 years old, was included in all the family gatherings around Lou’s hospital bed in our living room as he lay dying. She pulled a chair up so she could kiss him and lay her cheek on his and tell him she loved him more than once. Since then she talks freely about how much she misses him and hopes he made friends quickly in heaven. Sometimes when he is the subject of our conversations, she will look up, smile and blow multiple kisses into the air towards the sky.
    These examples are healthy. My childhood memories of inclusion at the ceremonies of my parents and subsequent other relatives helped prepare me for my ultimate loss of Lou.
    Good blog!

    • Oh Anne, you know better than anyone from your first hand experience, how healing a funeral can be for a child. I find your story so touching – I love that, like the book, your society at that time (and still to this day in Michigan I’m sure) automatically assumed children would be present and participatory. There weren’t the fears we have now – I wonder where they came from?

      Thank you so much for sharing not only your own story but Elizabeth’s as well. She will never forget and always be grateful that she was there, present, in those moments with Lou.

      Thank you for giving her the blessing you were given,


  2. Neil says:

    Hi Molly –

    This is a great topic that many of our families ask us. Yes, I believe that children should be taught about the circle of life. Just as we include them in all other life events, birthday’s, holidays, weddings, anniversaries. I also love when our families bring their dogs to viewing or funerals, we all are part of the bigger picture or one family under God. I would always communicate to the child and give a good explanation of the death and why we are having a funeral, then let the child decide if they want to attend or not. I love your thought provoking blogs, great job!

    • Thank you so much Neil! I love how far you took this – if we are talking community, why shouldn’t we include pets if they were a significant part of that person’s life? People do it in weddings all of the time and since we know that pets do grieve, wouldn’t it be wonderful to involve them in a ceremony? Yes, I definitively agree with you!

      Thank you for always sharing your wonderful ideas that take it to the next level!


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