'Children and funerals'
‘Iceberg’ was a doctoral study at the University of York that addressed issues of child
bereavement through a retrospective study of nearly one hundred individuals who had either
experienced the death of a parent when at school, or were the surviving parent of such a
child. The initial spark for ‘Iceberg’ was an interest in the specific area of children and funerals
and the effect that either going (or not going) to the funeral had on individual children.
Historically, in the past there is evidence to suggest a far greater involvement of children at
the time of death than would be regarded as ‘normal’ today.
Forty-seven per cent of the children attended the funeral of their parent and there was
correlation between the age of children and attendance at the funeral.
Of the fifty-three per cent of children not attending, twenty-four per cent were forbidden, whilst
eleven per cent were distracted from attending the funeral. None of those attending the
funeral reported any negative experiences, two thirds reported it as a positive or helpful event.
In contrast, over three-quarters of those not attending the funeral later wished
that they so had. Over a third had feelings of regret, others feeling excluded
angry and hurt. The conclusion was that the best strategy is to give children
informed choice about whether or not to attend. If children do attend a negative
outcome seems unlikely, but it would be prudent to prepare them as to what to
expect at the ceremony.
The funeral is a public event of closure for the family and community to say their
goodbyes to the deceased and also a transition marker which seems important
in terms of grieving. Adults may not recognise that children need to grieve. Forty
per cent of maternal funerals were attended, compared with nearly fifty per cent
of the paternal funerals. It may be that fathers were more marginally protective of
their children, or mothers marginally tended to see potential benefits of their
children attending the funeral. Many children said that attending the funeral was
a positive event. Some said that they felt that it had helped their grieving and let
them say goodbye. Some felt supported by the large number of people
attending, and also felt that the funeral provided her with the opportunity to say
goodbye. Others said that they would have felt ‘detached from reality’ and
‘excluded’ if they had not attended. Some felt that attending the funeral helped
to gain the reality of the death.
Over three-quarters of those children who did not attend the funeral of their
parent wished that they had attended. Over a third had feelings of regret, others
felt that they had been excluded from the family at the time of the death. Others
reported anger, hurt and frustration.
Thirty-five per cent of the children were forbidden or distracted from attending the
funeral, and many were still angry and bitter at not having been given the choice
of whether or not to attend. This strategy is only likely to be successful in the
short-term, as the youngsters sooner or later will realise that they could have
attended the funeral, with the potential for anger and regret, which was often
Some felt that they were left ‘on the side’ and ‘out of things’, others thought the
family were trying to protect them. Some were offered the possibility to attend the
funeral, but had decided not so to do. In the long term the fact that there were
offered the choice seems to have helped them and they did not feel the
exclusion from the family that was felt by some of the non-attenders who had not
been given the choice.
Parents may agonise as to whether their children should attend the funeral of the
parent that has died. It is received wisdom from counsellors that attending the
funeral is generally helpful for the bereaved.
It seems that there is nothing to lose, but much to gain, by children attending the funeral, with
the ‘golden rule’ to give children the choice and neither force them to attend, but neither forbid
nor distract them from attending. It also seems important to prepare children for the
experiences of attending the funeral.
Yes- attended 47
No- did not attend 53
Forbidden to attend 24
Distracted from attending 11
Attending their parent’s funeral
Pre- school 5-7 yr. 8-11 yr. 12-15 yr. 16+ yr. Total
zero zero 44 63 100 47
Children, by age, attending their parent’s funeral
The right thing to do
The right thing to do
How children felt about
attending the funeral
Felt not true
How children felt about not attending the funeral
1999 ‘Children and the impact of parental death’ Unpublished Doctoral
Research at the University of York (Operation Iceberg).
2001 ‘Understanding children’s experience of parental bereavement’,
London, Jessica Kingsley.
2004 ‘Should children attending their parents funerals?’ Pastoral Care in
Education, Vol. 22, 1, pp 10-14
For details of the Hull based ‘Lost for Words’ training courses in the
City and for delivering the training in your area please contact me
at the City Psychological Service, Tel 01482 613747
John Holland, Educational Psychologist, Hull City Psychological Service