Should Infants and Children Attend Funerals?

Consider these key factors if you face this challenging question

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There is no simple, one-size-fits-all answer about whether a child should attend a funeral, memorial and/or burial service. Photo © Stockbyte/Getty Images

When a loved one dies, parents and guardians often question whether infants and/or young children should attend the subsequent funeral, memorial and/or burial service(s) held for the deceased, or if the kids should remain at home with a babysitter or at the house of a neighbor or friend.

Understandably motivated by the desire to protect children from traumatic, emotional events in general, parents and guardians might also wonder if their child is simply too young to understand what's going on, or worry that the service(s) will trigger fears about dying and death afterward.

Unfortunately, there is no simple, one-size-fits-all answer to this dilemma, but this article offers several key factors you should consider to help you decide whether your infant or child should attend a funeral, memorial and/or burial service.

The Child's Age

Many myths about the needs of grieving children exist, and chief among these is that the age of the child dictates whether he or she should attend a funeral, memorial and/or burial service. According to these myths, infants and children under a certain age (typically around three or four years old, but not exclusively) should not attend interment rites because they are simply too young to understand the meaning of these services, they do not grieve yet, or, because of their age, haven't formed a meaningful attachment to the deceased and therefore have no need to be present.

The reality is that a child's age should never dictate whether he or she should attend a funeral, memorial and/or burial service.

Creating absolutes based solely on chronologic age is just as foolish as saying "all teenagers are rebellious" or that it's "too late to get married" after a certain point in life. Instead of basing your decision on the child's age alone, consider the other factors listed in this article and then make an informed decision.

How are the Parents Coping?

Raising a child is a full-time job and can prove challenging for parents or guardians even under the best of circumstances. When a death occurs -- particularly when it involves an immediate family member, such as a spouse/partner, parent or sibling -- the resulting grief and sadness, not to mention the myriad details involved in planning a funeral, memorial and/or burial service, can feel overwhelming. While it is important to consider the emotional state of the parent(s) or guardian(s) when deciding if an infant or child should attend, this alone should not dictate his or her attendance at a service.

While it might feel easier to simply arrange for a babysitter or ask a neighbor to watch your child during the services, it is important to understand that you have several options that enable your infant or child to attend without placing greater demands upon you. First, parents or guardians can arrange for a family member, friend or even a member of the funeral home's staff to serve as your child's companion during the funeral, memorial and/or burial service.

He or she should be prepared to stay with your son or daughter throughout the duration and to answer any questions your child might pose, as well as to propose some structured activities if/when the child's attention span wanes.

In addition, it is important to understand that your infant or child does not need to attend the service(s) for the entire duration. For example, attending the first hour of a wake/visitation, or the funeral but not the burial, and then perhaps heading home or out for a meal with a trusted family member or friend enables your child to participate without placing undue stress and pressure upon yourself.

What Does the Child Want?

While it might seem counterintuitive, sometimes the most effective way to determine whether a child should attend a funeral, memorial and/or burial service is to simply ask the child directly. In order to help your son or daughter make a decision, you should be prepared to explain to him or her what would take place at the service(s) and the meaning behind these ceremonies and/or rituals.

It is also important to prepare your child for the potential emotional reactions of other attendees. Funerals, burials, and memorial services are among the few situations where it is still socially acceptable to cry and express sadness in public. Seeing family members and friends in this new context might prove alarming, however, so it is best to prepare your child for what he or she might encounter.

Depending on the age of your child and his or her level of maturity, this discussion will likely also trigger some "big questions," such as why do people die, where do they go, etc., so you should be prepared to answer these questions, as well. In general, you should answer any questions your child asks directly and honestly, without resorting to euphemisms. (For more information, please read "Talking to Children About Death.")

If your son or daughter chooses not to attend a funeral, memorial and/or burial service, it is important not to criticize your child. If necessary, you might even reassure him or her that not attending the service does not mean he or she doesn't love the deceased, and that attendance is not the only way to say goodbye to a loved one.

Still Can't Decide?

If you still remain unsure after carefully considering the factors above, then your child should probably attend the funeral, memorial and/or burial service just in case doing so proves important to him or her later in life. Many teenagers and adults feel a sense of regret, guilt or even anger because they were excluded from a service as a child and did not have a chance to say goodbye to a loved one. In some cases, people believe that missing out on a funeral, memorial or burial when they were young affected their ability to grieve normally later in life.

That said, you should not force your child to attend a service if he or she does not want to be present. Requiring a child's attendance can create feelings of resentment. As noted at the beginning of this article, there is no clear-cut answer to this question.

Sources
"Should young children go to funerals?" by Kate Hilpern, July 12, 2013. The Guardian. Retrieved April 27, 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2013/jul/12/should-young-children-go-to-funerals

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