Thursday, March 28, 2013

Should children go to funerals?

Over the years I have been asked this from time to time and it has always struck me as an odd question. My answer has always been, “Why the heck not”. Of course the parents of such a child are fearful that being at a funeral might somehow psychologically damage the child. That wont happen given that other circumstances are OK.

Young girl and helicopters

Obviously a child can only go to a funeral if the cultural rituals allow for it. I would also recommend that a child not go if there was the potential for some major calamity or highly emotional event. If someone was going to angrily attack another person there or if someone was going to throw them self in the grave and start tearing at their skin whilst screaming. Baring such unusual events I would recommend that they do go as the child could psychologically benefit from it.

There probably is one other thing to keep in mind. When a child and a parent are placed into a sudden unpredictable high stress event such as a car accident or a bomb goes off near by the first thing a child will do is to look at the parent and try to read them. As the event is unusual the child will not know how to react so they will look to the parent for ‘guidance’ in this way. Does mother get angry, collapse in shock, get calm and problem solve and so forth? The child will take the cues from how mother reacts and then react in its own way which most often (but not always) will be similar to mother’s reaction or some derivative of it depending on its own natural temperament. Either way it will be heavily influenced by mother’s emotional reaction to this unpredictable event.


If at a funeral mother is really, really going to loose it emotionally then it might be a good idea to have someone else look after the child whilst there. There is nothing wrong, in fact it is psychologically good for a child to see mother cry at a funeral and even sob at a funeral if someone is nearby reassuring the child that mummy is OK. Which of course mummy is. Mummy will start sobbing and then mummy will stop sobbing and then life goes on. A child will not be psychologically damaged by viewing such an event.

When my two sons were about 4 and 6 years old their grandfather (my father) died from an illness. At the chapel we had a viewing of him in his coffin and I took my children up to him and we said a few words and each touched him in turn. I never have understood what’s the big deal. People live and people die. When people die you say your goodbyes, you take time to grieve and life goes on.

As this diagram shows there are two different ways of knowing things, in your Adult and Child ego states. When a loved one dies we will know in our Adult ego state that the person is dead. We have an intellectual understanding of it.

A thinks, C blieves

This is quite different from the Child ego state feeling, knowing and believing the person is deceased. We all have a 4 year old inside us who will be there until the day we die. So we all have the ability to think and feel quite irrational things like a 4 year old can. Accepting that a loved one is deceased can be one of those occasions where the Child in us will think in a prelogical way and not accept the death in some way.

clowns carry coffin

Funerals in this way can be very helpful. If the cultural rituals allow it I always suggest that there be a viewing of the body where the bereaved go and stand close to the body and touch it. The touching part in particular will let the 4 year old inside of us get some comprehension that the person is dead and gone. Often this can be quite powerful psychologically. And of course there is no reason why children cannot do the same.



  1. I grew up living with grandparents who took my brothers and me to funerals and visitations very frequently; that generation seemed to go to services for anyone they knew including family of anyone they knew. We also mowed several cemeteries during summers and decorated graves on holidays, so death was always just part of life for us. One time around age 8, we went to a funeral held in a small church in rural West Virginia. In this church, they handled snakes and spoke in tongues. The snakes I recognized immediately because of the cages in the back of the sanctuary. I had never heard of speaking in tongues until after the service when my grandmother explained it to me. The service started very typically, but then the preacher started yelling and singing gibberish. This went on for quite a while; I looked around at the other people to see if I was the only person in the room who couldn’t understand the words. Some people were crying and some were waving their arms and singing - so concluded there was something wrong with me. My brother said he hoped they let us hold the snakes, but fortunately nobody opened a cage. It was a service I’ll never forget!

  2. Thanks KYLady for telling of your experiences and how in your case death and funerals and cemetaries are not things which will traumatize and psychologically harm children. Children I think are resilient things that can cope with adversity but we treat them like they are these fragile things that will break even if we sneeze. Tony

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