'Children and funerals'

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					                                   '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



Said goodbye

Not helpful

Helped grieving


The right thing to do

The right thing to do




 How children felt about
attending the funeral



Not bothered


Vague memories


Felt not true


Family protected


Not grieved

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