One of the questions I'm oft asked is whether, or at what age, children should attend funerals. The truth is that I am not the person to ask—ask the child! As soon as children are able to sit still or react appropriately at family events, they should be given a choice about funerals.
Funerals are important family rituals. When they are done well, they can be highly therapeutic events. They reinforce the reality of the death—often critical for a child. Funerals also provide opportunities for support. Such rituals validate grief and empower memories of the deceased. They address the ways that belief systems and personal philosophies deal with death and loss.
Moreover, most funeral rituals include varied events—a wake or visitation, a ceremony, and often a committal or burial. The child can decide whether to attend all or any of these events. They may go up to the casket (if there is one) or not.
In order for children to make an appropriate choice, they first need information. If they have never attended a funeral, they need to know what to expect. Describe everything from how the room is laid out to how the deceased may appear, should there be an open casket. Most funeral directors will be willing to assist—taking the child to an empty room and showing them what a casket may look like, for instance. Explain that some individuals will cry since they miss the person, while others may smile or even laugh as they reminisce about the deceased individual. Others may simply catch up with friends or relatives they have not seen for a while.
It is not an option, however, to say to a child, "You may go to the funeral or stay alone in this strange location by yourself.” Nor is it fair to set up such an attractive alternative to attend that the child will later regret their decision. I once counseled a child whose father encouraged him to go on a church trip to an amusement park rather than attend his mother’s funeral. If the child chooses not to go, allow a comfortable option—staying, for example, with a familiar babysitter.
Finally, offer support. If it is a family funeral, parents may not be able to offer that support as they are likely both grieving and deeply involved in the ritual. Here, I suggest a “shepherd”—someone such as a trusted family friend for each child who could attend solely to the child’s need’s—answering the child’s questions, taking them for a walk if the child needs respite, or just offering a shoulder on which to cry.
For over three decades, I have taught a graduate course entitled "Children, Adolescents, Death, and Loss." I begin the course by asking students to recount their first experience with death. Many times, students will speak of a funeral for someone that died. Many will recount their disappointment at not being able to attend that ritual, while a few describe being forced to go or to do something at the funeral—such as kiss the corpse—that they found traumatic.
Yet in these remembrances of thousands of students, no one ever said: “I was given a fair choice to attend and I still resent that!”