Fortunately, these days children’s funerals are few and far between. For those involved, they’re the ones that no-one looks forward to and they are ones of which few people have much experience or feel confident in taking. Anyone with children or grandchildren, anyone who has worked with children, can imagine the emotions that could be generated by a child’s funeral.
As a celebrant, I haven’t yet been asked to take any children’s funerals and, whilst I know that at some point I will, it’s the type of funeral that I really don’t want to have to take. I will rise to the task, there’s no question about that and will do the very best that I possibly can – just like every ceremony – I just dread the day that I am asked.
In a few week’s time, I will be reading a poem at the funeral of the wife of a good friend. It is a poem I know well, which speaks of the way a bereaved partner might feel in the weeks afterwards. Despite my experience, It’s going to be a difficult read because I know that I will project so many of my own feelings into it. How would I feel if it were a child? – that’s a difficult one to predict.
There are no standard protocols for arranging children’s funerals but there are common conventions. Most funeral directors offer their services free, as do most celebrants and churches. Details of the support for child-bereaved families through the government’s Children’s Funeral Fund can be found on many funeral directors’ websites, often on a dedicated webpage with other information and weblinks.
With surprising wisdom, the government allows funeral directors to apply for the grant on the family’s behalf, which is not means-tested. All these things are a great help for affected families. The website; Winston’s Wish has some useful information and guidance too.
So, how should a celebrant prepare for a child’s funeral? The parents and wider family may be able to give some guidance, although they may be too numb to contribute much. The benefit of being part of Humanist Ceremonies is the mutual support that is available to celebrants. Other celebrant organisations may enable mutual support too, but the Humanist one is well established and maintains high standards, and it’s the one with which I am familiar. I am also in contact with colleagues who are much more experienced than I am and are a source of advice and guidance, which they are only too willing to share.
When a child has barely lived, what form does the celebration of a life take? Grief may be no less than that for an older child. For the family contemplating a birth, the child has a life and a future. The child grows up in their minds, in their hopes and aspirations. When it is born; the child is the realisation of those thoughts and imaginings and to them the child is beautiful, however briefly – a flower blooming only for a day is no less beautiful for its brevity of span. There are a wealth of reasons to celebrate the child and, at the same time, to acknowledge their grief.
The funeral for an older child may have a different form, the hopes and aspirations of the family will have more focus, they have known the child and he or she was a person. The family’s circle may be larger and the grief will not be as private, there may be older and younger siblings, friends too.
When there are children; family or friends, there is bound to be the question of; how old should a child be to attend a funeral? Will they be able to cope? What can they understand about death?
I spent most of my working life in education, the latter half in special needs education. I learnt very early on that every child, irrespective of age or comprehension, has capacity to learn and understand. It’s all about how things are presented to them. I firmly believe that children should always be allowed to attend funerals.
If a child is excluded from the funeral of a sibling or close friend, with whom they may have had a special bond, it has the potential to cause long-term psychological damage and overall, it is wrong. A funeral is not a scary magical ceremony to which only grown-ups can go.
When a child has suffered a long illness, the sibling may have been excluded from a lot of the knowledge, treatment and discussion; they may have been separated from parents for extended periods whilst the parents were attending the sick child. To be excluded at this final and very special time may be yet another cause for hurt and upset.
As a celebrant, I have enjoyed contributions from children at funerals of grandparents. I have been able to incorporate ‘poems’ the children have written or little stories that they or parents have told me. When children can form part of the ceremony in such ways, they lighten the tone and the children know that they have been able to play a part in it. Perhaps it’s just me, but I think it’s lovely to see them smile when their names are brought into the proceedings. Children grieve too and this may be a significant way of helping.
So, what do you tell a child; a brother, sister or close friend? My answer is always to tell the truth. By truth, the one thing that I do not mean is to that ‘John has gone to live in the sky’, or ‘Jane has gone to sleep for a very long time’. Those things help little and may lead to mistrust and problems later on.
Having said all of that, I know that I will be asked to take a child’s funeral, sooner or later. It will be a challenge to which I will rise, but I would still prefer it to be later rather than sooner.