Funerals and Ceremony

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Q: Should my young son attend the funeral of his grandmother?

Research suggests that children should go to funerals if they want to. It gives children a chance to see grief and learn about it. If your son will attend a service, talk with him ahead of time about what he can expect. For example, if there will be an open casket, let him know he will be seeing his grandmother’s body. He may have many questions, and you may not have all the answers. It’s okay to say you have to think about it for a bit, and talk to him after you’ve had a chance to collect your thoughts.

Many parents find it helpful to look for children’s books about dying. You can talk about the characters in the book and relate their circumstances to what’s happening in your lives. This is an excellent way to discuss death and dying with young children.

Q: What should I say to my children about death and cremation?

Discussion with children about death and the rituals around death need to be honest and open. Children need this because they can sense what’s going on around them. Honest answers to their questions can minimize their fears.

Before you discuss cremation, talk about death in simple terms. You may say that death means someone is no longer breathing, is not alive, can’t experience things in this world and is dead. It’s important to use the words “dead” and “died.” Terms such as "loss", "in heaven" or "passed away" may confuse children. If the child was present when the death happened, it’s good to review events simply. Children may feel they’re at fault somehow, and it’s important to assure them that they’re not to blame for the death. Children may have some ideas about illness, death and funerals that seem strange to adults. These thoughts need to be clarified gently, with simple explanations. It’s also crucial to understand that children need repeated discussion of issues around death. They may ask certain questions over and over again. It can be hard emotionally for adults to answer the same questions repeatedly, but it’s important for the children.

Use information that’s appropriate for their age. If you have several children close in age, it’s best to talk with them together. This creates an open environment, which promotes discussion and questions. These discussions can be very tough for parents. Keep in mind that it’s okay to show emotion; it shows children that emotions are a natural part of grieving. You and your children may find it helpful to have someone with you when you talk. This could be a friend, someone the children know or a health care provider who can answer questions.

When you do talk about cremation, keep things simple. Cremation is just one part of death and grieving. There are different views on what’s best to say. Some people don’t want to talk about fire and burning, while others do use those words. Parents usually know what their children can handle and the words that are best for them. Whatever words you use, make it clear that the person who died does not suffer in the cremation process because they are dead and are unable to feel.

If you plan to keep the ashes in your home, make your children comfortable with that. It helps to show them the ashes, as it makes the contents of the urn very real to children. Explain that the ashes are what’s left of the person who died. You may want to decide together where the ashes will be kept. This helps children realize the importance of the ashes and their significance in your home. It also gives them a chance to identify a location that’s special to them or to a particular memory.

There are other containers available to store ashes. Several small urns can be used so the ashes can be divided and kept in several places. Necklaces that contain ashes can be a symbolic way to keep the loved one close. There are also teddy bears with heart necklaces containing ashes that children can keep in their rooms. Discussing the relevance of ashes is the key to stimulating discussion and helping them remember the person who died.

If your children are young, an excellent way to promote conversations about these difficult subjects is to have them draw, or to read to them from children’s books about dying. You can talk about the drawings or the stories, and relate them to what’s happening in their lives.

Q: I would like to speak at my father’s funeral, but I don’t know what I should say and whether I can do so without breaking down? How do I prepare for this?

Speaking at a memorial service is an honour. It gives you the privilege of paying respect to the person who has died, and of helping those who have gathered for the event. Speaking at your father's funeral is a special way of honouring him and the relationship you had with him. Your public mourning could be a significant healing step for you as you grieve your loss of him. It may help others who are present in their grieving too.

For most people who come to a memorial service, it is the personal stories about the person who has died that they remember later. In giving voice to the memories of your father, you help those present to remember their own experiences with him.

There isn't a specific right or wrong thing to say at a memorial service, but what comes from the heart is usually the best thing. Nobody else can truly know the way your father touched and guided your life or the kind of relationship you had. Even something that seems small may have had profound meaning for you and your family.

As this is a celebration of your father’s life, what you say should be a personal tribute to him. When you are preparing what you will say you may want to recall the memories of your father that you carry with you. Which of those memories do you want the larger community to carry away? What are the things about your father that you feel particularly thankful for? You may want to talk about what you learned from him or tell a story that highlights an attitude or value he passed on to you. Perhaps you want to talk of a special event involving him that has had a lasting influence on you. Memories of how you saw him in his relationships with you, your family, and other people can help everyone present celebrate the life he lived.

While it is appropriate for a tribute to highlight a person's qualities and traits that drew respect and affection, it also helps to keep it real and balanced. Your remembrances do not all have to be positive. As humans we all have our ups and downs, things we have struggled with, or perhaps amusing incidents that reveal our quirks or weaknesses. These are the characteristics that make each of us unique and memorable. It is okay to include some humour if this fits with your father and your family. Sometimes the touching moments we remember about people are also funny.

When you speak at your father’s service, you may be speaking not only for yourself, but for others in the family too. Ask them what they remember about your father. You can then add some of their memories, thoughts and feelings to your own comments about him.

Many who agree to speak in public about a loved one who has died find it a very emotional experience. The possibility of crying while speaking should not prevent you from taking part in your father’s memorial service as you would like. Accept that this is a tender, emotional time. Some find it helpful to say so as they begin to speak. If you become choked with emotion or start to cry while you are speaking, pause, take a deep breath, feel the support and understanding of those present, and gather yourself together to carry on. Some people find it reassuring to have a backup plan, such as having someone stand by to offer support or fill in if needed. Another option is to give a copy of what you plan to say to the leader of the service or ceremony and ask her or him to finish what you have written if you feel you cannot.

Here are some other tips that you may find helpful in preparing to speak at your father’s funeral:

  • Ask the leader of the service what is an appropriate length for your speech. The length depends on whether other people will make speeches, and how much else is in the service.
  • Do not try to give a complete account of your father’s life unless you are specifically asked to do so by your family or the leader of the service. Usually this information is in the obituary and most people will have seen it. Share the memories and reflections that are most important to you rather than trying to say everything you can about your father.
  • Avoid sharing details that your father or other family members would be embarrassed to hear.
  • You may want to comment on the comfort you have found in your religion or spirituality in the face of your father’s death, but using this occasion to promote your spiritual perspective is not appropriate.


These articles offer some information about grief and about rituals that may offer comfort in your remembrance and grieving:
Grief Work
Rituals to Comfort Families

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