For generations, funerals and ceremonies have brought families and communities together to support those who are grieving. Funerals give you the opportunity to honor your child’s life and the legacy of love that’s left behind. At a funeral, you understand you’re not alone in your grief and can find comfort in the community that surrounds you.
Your first step is to determine the type of service that you desire. You may want to reflect upon your faith and cultural traditions, and integrate those that are meaningful to you. Your funeral director, faith leader, lay celebrant, and family can also offer suggestions to help structure the service.
Ask yourself if you would prefer a small, private service of close family and friends, or if you want the support of a larger community-based gathering. Perhaps a little of both appeals to you. Whatever you decide is the right choice.
The type of service you select will influence where the funeral events will take place. You may opt to hold a traditional service at the funeral home, a church, synagogue, faith center, or community center. Your family’s backyard, favorite park, playground, restaurant, or other unique location may reflect the type of celebration you want in honor of your child.
A few quiet moments at your child’s graveside or a favorite place may also be a good choice for you. There are endless possibilities and no “right way” to plan things. What’s important is to create a service that meets your needs and celebrates and honors your child’s important and unique life.
If your child died as an infant, the service can be a time to share the hopes and dreams you had for your child.
“Some people were shocked that we held Zoë during the funeral service, while others thought it was a lovely thing to do.”
Visitation, wake, memorial service, Mass, celebration of life, funeral liturgy, homegoing service, graveside services—no matter the name, the rituals surrounding funerals bring us together.
“We loved the garden and the service had to be held there.”
Explaining even the smallest details will help your child feel more comfortable with their decision to attend the funeral. Your goal is to help them feel empowered, supported, and informed. Remind them that they have control and are allowed to change their mind at any time about their level of involvement and participation.
Will they recognize family and friends? Will other children be in attendance? Will their sibling’s body be present? Will there be an open casket, or perhaps an urn?
Let your child know that people grieve differently and that they will see a wide variety of emotions, including crying and laughter. Remind them that their feelings matter, and it’s ok if sometimes they want to cry and other times they want to laugh.
Point out anything comforting or personal, especially if your child was involved in the planning or decision. Is their sibling wearing an item of clothing they helped select? Is everyone wearing their sibling’s favorite color? Are there familiar items or photo boards on display?
Talk about the order and location of events including visitation, ceremony and post-ceremony activities. And remember to discuss approximately how long they will be at each location.
Remind your child they can always share what’s on their mind. It’s not uncommon for children to ask the same questions again and again as they process the information. Some kids will ask very pointed, direct questions. It’s okay if you are not able (or ready) to answer all of their questions, but assure your child that you will try to find someone who can.
Remember that children are children first. Your child will express grief in small doses and may need permission to play. Outward signs of grief may come and go. Appoint a trusted and known adult as your child’s “funeral buddy.” Select a buddy who won’t mind leaving the services, and who can help explain the different activities and rituals. This support will allow you to attend to your needs and will give you time to grieve while knowing that your child is in trusted hands, and will feel safe and empowered throughout the day.
Consider a visit to the funeral home and other sites prior to the funeral to familiarize your child with the events of the day.
Exploring the reasons why your child does not want to attend the funeral will also allow you to correct any misunderstandings or talk about their fears. Your child may simply need more information. Let your child know their options, should they choose not to attend the funeral. Will they stay with a family member or babysitter? Will they stay overnight with a friend? Will the funeral be live-streamed or recorded to watch later?
Remind your child that you support their decision and that they are always welcome to change their mind, but never force a child to attend the funeral. There are always other ways to say goodbye.
Be prepared to support a child who may later regret not having attended the funeral. You can offer to hold a small memorial service at your child’s graveside or another meaningful space. Ask your child what would be meaningful to them.
Children who were very young at the time of the funeral may have questions about their sibling as they age. A recording of the funeral may help you share stories and memories of your child.
"It was a big blur at the time. We recorded the entire service. It is our living memento.”
Do your best to stay nourished and hydrated, wear comfortable clothing, and take breaks as you need them. Be sure to check in regularly with your spouse/partner, co-parent, children, and other important loved ones.
"What we really needed was to take care of our baby one last time.”
In almost all situations, your funeral director will be able to make necessary arrangements for you to spend time with your child’s body prior to the funeral or cremation. They will prepare you for any changes you might see in your child; for example, they may discuss how your child might look or feel.
Your child will always be part of your family and these tender acts of love will stay with you forever. Bringing in family traditions and rituals can make these final, quiet moments especially meaningful.
Like many families, you may choose to protect your last moments and memories of your child or find that you are not comfortable with a final viewing. Give yourself permission to express your love for your child in a way that feels meaningful and comforting to you.
You might be uncomfortable with the idea of your child viewing their sibling’s body. However, children want to be included in what others around them are seeing. Children have big imaginations and what they imagine may be far scarier than the actual experience. Be sure to offer clear and honest information, encourage questions, and repeatedly reassure your child that their sibling can no longer feel cold or pain, and is not scared. Remember that the decision is your child’s to make (with your guidance), and remind them they can change their mind at any point. Consider scheduling a private viewing with a supportive adult (perhaps from the funeral home or hospice) present for the children.
Explain to your child that their sibling will be lying in a casket, fully dressed, with their eyes closed and their arms folded. If only the top half of the casket is open, assure your child that their sibling’s legs and feet are lying comfortably. Describing the entire outfit their sibling is wearing (including shoes and socks) may be comforting; remember to acknowledge your child’s involvement if they helped select their sibling’s special outfit.
Clarify for your child that their sibling’s body may look different than when they were alive, and note any visible marks, scars, or swelling. Let your child know that touching their sibling is ok, and the choice to touch is theirs to make—never force the issue. Remind them that because their sibling has died and their body has stopped working, that they will be cool to the touch.
Note that the funeral director’s process to care for their sibling’s body may make them feel firmer. If your child asks where they can touch, model a gentle stroke of their ibling’s arm or hair.
If a closed casket is the best option for your family, offer a detailed explanation about how their sibling is laying inside the casket, fully dressed (including shoes), with their arms folded, and their eyes closed. It will be especially important to reassure your child that their sibling cannot feel cold, pain, or fear. And always encourage questions.
It is just as important to explain what your child will see when their sibling’s body is not present. Explain that there might be a portrait, an urn on a memorial table, photo boards, or other items.
“We all wrote letters to him, which were buried with him. No one else knows what I wrote—it was just a letter between Thomas and me.”
Give your child the choice to place a stuffed animal, toy, or other special item in the casket. Be very clear that this item will stay with their sibling, and they will not have it back. Encourage your child to write a letter, note or special memory, or draw a picture that can be placed in the casket or cremated with their sibling.
Incorporating what made your child special into the funeral planning may help you feel a strong connection to your child, help tell their story, and celebrate your child’s unique personality.
What symbols represent my child to me?
“Joey got such a kick out of the superheroes visiting him at the hospital, so we invited them to the funeral. It brought us such joy to see the other children’s faces light up as Spiderman, Superman and Wonder Woman walked into the service.”
How can people special to my child participate?
“My son had a fascination with fire trucks. We were so honored when the fire department greeted us at the funeral home with a full fleet of fire trucks.”
Including other children in planning the funeral or memorialization will help them process their grief and connect to the child who has died. Let a child’s age and comfort level guide their involvement in a way that feels meaningful to them.
Children may want to:
Older children might find meaning and comfort when helping with the funeral arrangements. They can help:
Dress for the Occasion
Invite other children or all attendees to dress in your child’s favorite color, favorite sports team, superhero, or cartoon character.
Personalize Your Child’s Casket
Consider a white or light-colored casket and encourage children, family and friends to write messages with markers; use your child’s favorite blanket, bedding, or team flag as the casket lining or ceremonial shroud.
Consider Unique Viewing Options
Request a Moses basket, cradle, bassinet, doll bed, or crib for your baby, or a youth bed or a wagon padded with blankets for an older child.
Encourage Memory Sharing
Set up message boards, provide a guest book, or hand out index cards for others to share stories. Provide baskets or canning jars with pens and paper to share words of comfort and support. Use prompts such as “I will always remember,” “I will treasure,” or “My hope for your family is….”
Include Child-Friendly Songs
Think beyond traditional hymns and incorporate your child’s favorite songs, songs meaningful to your family, or those that reflect your child’s personality and interests.
Select Unique Readings
Ask a beloved friend, relative or sibling to read a favorite story book, children’s grief book, lyrics to a favorite song or lullaby, or poem.
Offer the Eulogy or Memorial Speech
The decision to offer remarks at your child’s funeral is yours to make, so don’t let others discourage you if it’s important to you. You may want to ask a trusted person to be prepared complete your tribute if you become overwhelmed with emotions. Remember to prepare your remarks in advance.
Ask a friend to help create, and volunteer to manage, a kids’ room or a place where kids can go to color, play, or make a card for your child. Bring crayons, paper, crafts, and other useful art supplies. Invite children and all gathered to write a message to your child, which can be placed in (or near) the casket, or beside the urn.
Share Reflections & Memories
Ask significant people in your child’s life to share their reflections and memories or read a letter or poem on your behalf.
Hold Story Time
Hold a story time during the service and share your child’s favorite stories.
Incorporate Light & Scent
Light a unity candle and pass the light, use luminaries, or pass out flashlights. Create a soothing atmosphere with aromatherapy candles or incense.
Offer a Takeaway
Place two small hearts in a bag, so the attendee can leave one for your child, and keep the other; offer forget-me-not flower seed packets, photo buttons, your child’s favorite candy, or another special item or meaningful symbol. Make crafts in memory of your child, like an ornament.
Record the Day
Arrange for a photographer and videographer to record the occasion. Older siblings may have friends who can assist.
Request Teddy Bears or Books in Lieu of Flowers
Donate the items to a children’s hospice, hospital, or other charitable organization. Consider make this an annual ritual in memory making of your child.
Get Creative with Floral
Ask attendees to bring flowers from their gardens, provide a single flower to all who participate, or select flowers in your child’s favorite color.
Ask members of the local high school band or choir to lend their musical talents for the service.
Plan a Meaningful Send-Off
Have your child escorted to the cemetery by fire trucks, police cars, a race car, etc., or line the driveway with luminaries.
Consider having a “Realtor’s box” at the graveside containing memorial programs for visitors.
Request to be the first to scatter earth to cover your child's grave and invite family and friends to participate.
"Funerals are sad. I want five bouncy houses, Batman, and snow cones."
—Garrett, Who Planned His Funeral, Age 5
Sprinkle Glitter or Petals
Offer bottles of glitter and invite family and friends to sprinkle glitter over your child’s grave, or scatter flower petals.
Invite friends to leave flowers or mementos at the graveside.
Hold a Special Activity
Arrange an environmentally friendly balloon release, butterfly release, or blow bubbles during a special prayer or moment of silence. Hand out kites to fly or decorate small rocks to keep t the graveside.
Write a Memory
Write memories of love and support on the cremation casket.
Include Intimate Family Items
Include family handprints, a favorite toy or blanket, notes, or locks of hair in the cremation casket.
Select a Theme
Use your child’s favorite colors, characters, or games to create a themed reception. Host a backyard barbeque or tea party.
Plan an Activity
Release sky or floating lanterns; decorate rocks to place in a garden or at the cemetery; or make ornaments to hang from a tree in your garden.
Pass a microphone and encourage friends and family to share stories or memories; sign a message board or a matted picture frame.
Include a sing-along of your child’s favorite music.
Decide on the Menu
Serve your child’s favorite meal, or have it catered by their favorite restaurant. Or, hire an ice cream truck.
Remember that you do not need to grieve alone.