As a parent, we all want to protect our children from pain and grief. In this day and age we are fortunate that most of us discuss everything with our children, giving them an honest understanding of life.
I believe that death is no exception.
It is quite natural and understandable for adults to get caught up in their own grief and the practicalities of their own needs. Very often when children are bereaved, and almost as an after thought, the question can arise, ‘Shall we let the children come? Maybe they shouldn’t be there?’ Adults I meet often remember as a child or teenager not being allowed to go to a funeral, they can feel left out and excluded.
From my own experience, I agree that very young children or babies, who would not understand, could perhaps go to a friend for the day, as they can be a distraction for parents or siblings.
Children naturally have enquiring minds, and I believe that questions asked should be answered truthfully and honestly, to avoid them creating their own fears and fantasies. Teenagers may be going through a difficult time anyway, giving them a sense of involvement with the family is very important.
There are so many ways in which children can be included in a funeral, especially if the deceased person is a close relative. An older child may read a poem or something they have written. It is lovely when a musical instrument is played at the graveside, this, importantly, gives them something to focus on. The simple gesture of tying a hand written message on the coffin, handing out flowers can be helpful, being the person in charge of making sure a memory book is passed round or releasing biodegradable balloons.
As I encourage family involvement, children can come with parents the night before the funeral and help to make a floral tribute and decorate the coffin. There may be Grandma’s ashes or a pre-birth sibling to inter. Why buy an off the shelf container, when the children could decorate a box of their choice in their own way, with pictures and stickers. So personal and something they will always remember, that they were involved. This helps in two ways, togetherness with the family and being close to the coffin so that, on the funeral day, there are no shocks.
I often meet a family with children the day before and walk and talk them through exactly what will happen, answering the many questions asked!!
I remember three young children who had chosen Mummy’s grave, but their concern was about leaving her in ‘a hole in the ground’. After discussion, it was decided that the whole family would help to fill the grave. Ten large shovels and three small ones were on hand. We placed fresh hay and flowers on top of her coffin, softening the reality of the earth going into the grave. The children however, only did two shovels each, were satisfied, and then wanted to know if they could go off and play!!
I specialise in woodland burial, which on the whole is a far less formal experience, that can also be replicated for cremations. Whether I lead the ceremony or the family takes control, it is more laid back and personal, which can only mean an easier situation for children and parents alike to cope with.
One of many lovely goodbyes recently was to a special Uncle. An abundance of Sweet William’s (his name sake) were gathered from various gardens. Close friends played recorder and guitar and sang unaccompanied. At the end of the ceremony the children, family and friends sprinkled hay and flowers, which gave them all a feeling of togetherness. Sadness, but fulfilment. The children were delighted to hand out their homemade decorated biscuits with faces. They called them their feeling faces, showing happy and sad. Emotions they had talked about with Mummy.
There are many good publications about children and bereavement. My favourite is called ‘Muddles, Puddles and Sunshine’ described as ‘an activity book to help when someone has died’.
A little gift I give to families with children, and the feedback is always good, for the adults too.
A funeral is one of the most important events you may have to arrange. There is such a thing as ‘A Good Funeral’
It’s so important to talk, and with guidance and openness we can all ensure that children don’t become the forgotten mourners.
by Wendy Clarkson, Green Funeral Director, based in North Yorkshire
01756 701688/07968 205880
This article was orginally published in More to Death, the official magazine to The Natural Death Centre.