Planning your child’s funeral
If you have not already put some plans in place, facing the task of arranging your child's funeral when you have just been plunged into shock can seem overwhelming. It’s understandable that you might struggle to accomplish tasks in the way you’re used to when you can’t think as clearly. On the other hand, spending time organising could help you through these initial stages of grief. However you’re managing, make sure you enlist the help of others and plan in a way that’s right for you.
Your wishes as a family
If you and your child talked about this together then they might have given you some direction about the type of day it should be. They might have asked you to play a song they loved or everyone to wear brightly coloured clothing.
Siblings may well have their own ideas and want to chip in, so if it feels right, you could sit down as a family and discuss these ideas and use them as a basis to build on for the day.
Of course, you may not have had the opportunity to talk to your child about what happens after their death, or you made a decision not to. It can feel difficult to second-guess what you think they might have wanted but as long as you’re making decisions that are right for your family and are done with love, then you are doing the best that you can.
Simon, Hannah's Dad
In the 6 days that we had with Hannah once she had come out of hospital for end of life care, we didn’t discuss death or dying. We knew it was going to happen and I think Hannah, at 13, also may have understood but it wasn’t a subject that was discussed. We had managed to get snippets of information over the 2 years of her treatment – like her preferring to be buried rather than cremated, however, most other things we have had to make a judgement call as her parents as to what she may have wanted, both for her Celebration of Life and also continuing afterwards.
Planning the service you want
Where do I hold the service?
Services can be arranged in different settings. This might already be determined by your faith, but if not, you can choose for it to take place in a non-religious setting of your choice. This could be at a crematorium, a natural burial site, a hall, hotel or even your own home.
Who will lead the service?
If you aren’t having the ceremony in a place of worship, the service can be led by anyone. This includes family and friends, but many people opt for a celebrant. They will meet with you to learn about your child and help tailor a service that reflects their life and personality. A humanist celebrant will conduct a non-religious ceremony whereas a civil funeral celebrant can include religious material as well.
What about the order of service booklet?
This booklet is given to people attending the funeral so they know what to expect and have a momentum to take away. It lists what’s happening in the service and often contains photographs. They can be simple documents created at home or professionally printed brochures.
How can I make it special?
There really are no rules when it comes to designing a ceremony so you should feel free to make it as personal and bespoke as you like. Incorporate wishes your child might have had, like the music they wanted or colours that people should wear.
Think about things you could do to capture their personality and spirit. It could be balloons, decorations themed around a hobby they enjoyed, asking someone to make a slideshow with photos and video, calling on siblings and their friends to add their ideas too. Here are some things that other parents did to make it special and unique to them.
“I loved that a six-year-old’s funeral stipulated everyone should wear his favourite colour of red; NO black. His young friends had all painted fabulous pictures for him that had been clothes-pegged to lines strung down the aisle and very young guests had pictures to colour within the order of service. Another mother wanted very much to speak but worried she would not be able to manage during the service, so she recorded herself at home in the days before reading out a favourite story. That was so beautiful.” – an excerpt from Follow the Child: Planning and having the best end-of-life care for your child by Sacha Langton-Gilks.
“We wanted the funeral to be a celebration of our daughter’s life. We knew that there were going to be lots of young people there and it may well have been the first funeral they had been to. So we wanted to make it something they would like. We put a lot of thought into it and asked her friends what music they thought we should have.” – Jennie
“My son and daughter died within 12 days of each other, so we had 2 funerals within a fortnight. We wanted each funeral to be different, so they reflected the individuality of them both. They were at different schools and both their school choirs sang. We had their photographs on display boards as you went in. We followed my son’s coffin into the Church but decided to have my daughter’s coffin at the front and friends were invited to come and place pink carnations on top of it. We had balloons and candles, and some of their favourite music playing which their sister helped choose. A dear friend of ours painted beautiful pictures which were placed on their coffins – a winged warrior for my son, and a beautiful princess with a tiny superman making their way to a white castle in the sky for my daughter. A lady from the cemetery laid beautiful flower heads on the earth so that my daughter’s coffin was lowered onto a bed of flowers, which was a lovely touch.” – Sarah
“Our daughter planned the whole funeral and my father-in-law and I built the coffin and did heaps of other stuff. She knew what was happening and what she wanted. The whole process of doing what she wanted, and being involved in doing it helped a lot, and made wonderful memories that we hang on to.” – an excerpt from In our own words: Parents talk about life after their child has died of cancer
“Kimbers was adamant about what she wanted; and what she didn’t. Her wishes were really detailed: not having her hair in a toggle, no slides; how she wanted the coffin inside and out; the horse and carriage; everyone wearing pink, even the boys; who was to carry the coffin; that her brothers sing Dream a Little Dream; she wanted Black Eye Peas music but we could pick the rest; strawberries and bubbly to be served after the service.” – Julia
“We never spoke to Zac about this sort of stuff before he died so a lot of it was guess work. We just had to make the best of it. We ended up having a celebration of Zac’s life at our local rugby club with about 700 people and had a hog roast because Zac loved hog roasts.” – Jason
Organising the funeral
What does a funeral director do?
The experience and knowledge of a good funeral director can lift some of the weight of arranging practicalities and can be the easiest option at a difficult time. They can look after as many elements as you like, such as moving and caring for your child, providing you and your family with emotional support, arranging transport, helping to make special requests happen and processing paperwork. They should listen to your wishes and can support with as much or as little as you need. Most are on call 24/7.
On your first meeting, they will ask questions about all sorts of different things. Some of these choices might seem very insignificant compared to the devastation you feel. Some might feel terribly important, and not something you can decide on-the-spot. You don’t need to have all the answers. If you’re not sure – say you need some time to think about it. It’s also good to know that meeting can often happen in the comfort of your own home, which can help a little.
“We had a preconception of funeral directors and were dreading going. But what we thought couldn’t have been further from the truth. They even had Disney coffins on display. When we arrived, we could hardly open the door but we left feeling as though we’d achieved something and it wasn’t as bad as we thought.” – Jason
The National Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors (SAIF) promotes best practice. SAIF members should offer a compassionate, professional approach, underpinned by their industry-leading Code of Practice. Find a funeral director.
I don’t want a traditional ceremony. Are there alternatives?
If you’d rather not go through the motions of a conventional funeral, you can choose a direct cremation or direct burials. This is when your child’s body is collected and cremated or buried during working hours without a ceremony. You can request to have their ashes afterwards.
You are then free to arrange a memorial service when you’re ready, perhaps to scatter ashes somewhere or organise an event where the focus is on your child’s life. It’s also a more cost-effective option.
You could also organise a unique service, with or without the help of a funeral director:
Can I do it all myself?
Many people aren’t aware that you are under no obligation to use a funeral director. You can do it all yourself – the only legal requirement is that the death is registered and the body buried or cremated. It’s still viewed as an unconventional option but for some, it can be an important process and very special way to say goodbye. You can find an overview of things to consider from Money Advice Service.
The Natural Death Centre has lots of in-depth advice about how to do a ‘DIY’ funeral – from leading the service yourself to private burials.
My six-year-old sister died 10 years ago this month. We buried her on a friend's piece of land in the depths of the Kentish countryside with more than 100 people gathered to "celebrate" her life. We used no undertakers or religious ceremony. Our friends dug her grave, wrote and read poems, released balloons, played live music, took beautiful photographs of the day, cried and laughed with us. Her friends drew pictures, placed items in her grave for her and got a chance to say goodbye. The Natural Death Centre was invaluable for offering us information and support on what we could and couldn't do.
Burial or cremation
If you decide on a burial, you can visit local cemeteries and choose the one that is most suitable. The cost of this can vary hugely throughout the UK. Most prices will include the plot and burial but there may be extra fees for maintenance, or for someone who didn’t live in the same district or borough. You could consider a natural burial ground such as woodland which is often cheaper and can be beautiful, peaceful spaces. It is also possible for a burial on private land, although this does need careful consideration.
A burial can form part of the service with everyone attending or you can keep it private with only close family, or a direct burial where no one is present.
Bear in mind that you may have to adhere to certain rules depending on where you choose to bury your child.
“In our experience church burials are much stricter in their rules and regulations than cemeteries which are usually run by the local authority (we hadn’t realised there was much of a difference between the two). Hannah had a church burial and we found that there were significant restrictions in what we were permitted for her headstone – had to be certain colour, certain shape, no photos, no bright lettering, no symbols and we were accused of our wording not being ‘religious enough’! We were also told that we couldn’t have a headstone within the first six months as it would be ‘too soon’ to make a choice. Cemeteries seem to be more relaxed or flexible in their rules, especially having seen the headstones of some of the other children whose parents we know. It was just something we had never even considered before.” – Simon, Hannah’s Dad
If you are having a service in the crematorium, you can ask for a ‘committal’ at the end of the service. This is where the coffin is hidden from view by curtains or taken away. Instead, you could ask for it to remain on view, or to be out of sight for the entire service.
You can then arrange to have the ashes buried at the crematorium, scattered in the garden of rest or collect them to scatter in a special place. Or you could keep the ashes with you at home. Whatever you choose has to be right for you and your family.
Things to think about
We spoke to some bereaved parents who reflected on the choices they had made. One mum moved to a different part of the country years later and now lives far away from her child’s grave. A dad chose to scatter his son’s ashes abroad because he feared he and his family would feel obligated to visit a grave too frequently.
Another parent said she felt pressured into a cremation while she was in a vulnerable state but actually would have preferred a burial and somewhere to visit. So think carefully about what might be right for you as a family but remember that there are no wrong choices – you can only do what you feel is best at the time.
Paying for a funeral
Two in three parents are already in debt as a result of their child’s cancer, so it’s no wonder funerals can be a difficult additional cost to bear and a huge source of worry.
The Children’s Funeral Fund helps with costs for under-18s buried or cremated in England. It can pay for the burial fees, cremation fees and a coffin, shroud or casket. Providers should not charge you as they can claim back their costs. However, if you are not using a funeral director then you can make a claim online, as long as it is within 6 months of the funeral.
If you do have funeral costs to cover, our help with funeral costs page should help you to understand what help is available.
If you have other young children who want to attend the funeral they may need some explanations and preparation so that they will know what to expect. You could ask a trusted adult to keep a watchful eye over them and reassure them that there is someone to turn to during the day if you are not available to them at any time.
For older siblings, make sure you keep an open channel of communication and involve them as much as they want to be.
The day of your child’s funeral is likely to be both physically and emotionally exhausting. If you are worried about how you will manage think about talking to your GP or CLIC Sargent Social Worker.
After the funeral
If you’re having a ceremony, a get-together afterwards can bring together family, friends and people from your child’s community. It gives people a space to share stories and talk together following the funeral. You could:
Make arrangements to meet at a local hotel, a place of worship or community venue and invite people to attend the funeral. You can then choose whether you wish to go.
Arrange for people to come back to your home. You may like to think about asking a friend or family member to be responsible for asking people to leave when you want to have time alone.
Your family and friends will understand that you need to do what is right for you, even if this means that you prefer to have time for yourself without making any special arrangements for others.
- Write down any requests by your child and talk together with siblings and close family members about any wishes you might have.
- Think about what kind of service you would like and where – religious, traditional, at home, outdoors, a celebration, a memorial.
- Consider how much you feel able to undertake. Do you want a funeral director who can sort out the main nuts and bolts while you focus on the details? Maybe you’d like to do it all yourself – or somewhere in-between.
- Reflect on whether a burial or cremation feels right for you as a family.
- Look at your financial situation and what you’re able to afford. Get advice to fund your child’s funeral and make sure you ask what directors and other supplies are able to offer you.
- Keep talking to your other children and identify someone else who can support them on the day. Be mindful of how you’re feeling and speak your GP or social worker for support.
- Think about what you want to do afterwards. You could arrange a get-together for people attending the funeral, or plan something for just you as a family.
- Read more in Preparing Our Child’s Funeral by The Compassionate Friends