The person you should ask is your child.
When someone dies, kids need to have some choices and control over what they do. Some relatives might imply or say that a funeral is not an appropriate place for children. But that’s not true. Even in the case of a suicide or overdose, children should be allowed to be part of the event
Ritual is important when grieving
This is especially true for children. Funerals are special events that kick off the healing process. Unresolved grief can trigger all kinds of problems later, including substance misuse. So it’s important to allow your child the opportunity to be involved and respect their wishes.
In most cases, children will want to feel part of the ritual and there are many ways to do that. Some might want to put gifts or a letters they’ve written in the coffin in the case of the open casket, act as “assistant” pallbearer, hand out memorial cards, take video of people telling stories if they are older. A memory box is something they can decorate and add momentos to in order to remember the person they lost.
They also need to know what to expect, so mentioning that there will be crying, music and how the ceremony might unfold is also important. When things are not said, kids fill in the blanks and their imaginations make it far scarier.
I remember when my youngest son, Charles, was stressed about my brain surgery and later told me that he thought everyone in the family would have to use towels to stop the bleeding and keep my brains from falling out of my head after. He didn’t know that I would have staples which would keep my brains and all else in place. Although not a funeral example, it illustrates how kids can fill in the blanks when they don’t know what is going to happen. Things we take for granted because we have context for, they don’t have yet because they’ve never experienced it.
Funerals should be normalized
Everyone dies and funeral services of any kind are celebrations, connection, and a time for expressing feelings related to that loss with a group of people who share love for an individual they cared about. Children need the reassurance that self-expression and emotion are OK. And finally, if they have questions, answer honestly, keeping in mind that there is a way to explain to kids that doesn’t seem scary.
When explaining cremation, for example, it helps to describe it as exposing a body enclosed in a casket to high heat to reduce a body to its natural elements. That’s instead of saying that “the body will be burned” or “put in a fire” which can be be frightening.
Some kids might want to see the dead body, touch it or even poke it. Children want to test the finality of death. If the body is in good enough condition, it’s probably a good idea to allow them that experience as long as they are with a family member.
As parents, we want to protect our children from painful events.
But if we love, it means we hurt when we lose someone. By trying to shelter our children from the experience, we rob them of the opportunity to build resilience and learn how to manage emotional pain.