Posted by: Jody Glynn Patrick | 09/24/2009

Funerals for young children: Advice for newly bereaved parents.

Planning (or helping to plan) your child’s funeral may involve the hardest decisions you will ever be asked to make. It may put you at odds with other family members and loved ones. It may even make you question things you’ve always taken for granted, like your faith or love for others.

There are both emotional and “to do” things you may not think of because you don’t know the basics (who does?) about funerals. For example:

  • You don’t have to buy the coffin from the funeral home (where a markup can typically be 500%).  The FTC makes it illegal for a funeral home to insist you purchase it there, and you can’t be charged more for the service by using a different vendor. There is no real difference in how long the body is preserved; the difference is the quality and cost of the finish put on the coffin. Be advised you’ll likely be shown the most expensive model first, and once you see it, you’ll have a hard time moving “backwards” to a “lesser model”. But this is your decision to make.
  • Cremations are another alternative and much less costly. Mausoleum vaults are more costly than in-ground burials.
  • The funeral home charges for every service they provide. What is the actual cost to place an obituary in a newspaper? Ask a friend (use them) to call and check and then compare the cost before you check off boxes on a “package” form. You might be surprised what you are paying for those little funeral cards that can be printed or ordered online, or made by a friend. You might be shocked at the cost of flowers because you ordered them through an intermediary.
  • Be wary of funeral packages with built-in extras you don’t need (cemeteries determine if a vault liner is required, for example).
  • Depending on your sensibilities, there are biodegradable “green” caskets available, as well as online options.
  • Here is a typical order for Christian funeral services: Musical prelude, processional music, opening prayer, music (hymn), Scripture reading, obituary summary, eulogy, sermon, final viewing, benediction and  recessional music, followed often by graveyard services. However, you are under no obligation to do any or all of it this way. Discuss it with your faith leader (if any), or with the most involved family members or friends. Or decide yourself, if you have the responsibility for these decisions. Take as much or little help as you need.
  • Do you want to eulogize your child in your own words? When my son died, Daniel’s siblings and I wrote eulogies for him, and then I appointed people to stand up and deliver them if needed as a backup, if we were to become too overwhelmed to proceed. We needed them. (We didn’t select our closest friends, but rather professional friends who were not that emotionally tied to Daniel).
  • If you absolutely cannot afford to do anything, and cannot make financial arrangements between family, friends or a bank, a funeral director may be able to give you a contact for a charity that may be able to help. It isn’t guaranteed at all, but sometimes there are benefactors or charities who will step forward for a child’s funeral.

 Because the decisions you are making (or are helping someone else make) are so important, don’t feel rushed to move forward, and don’t feel “talked into” a decision. Take an advocate with you, one who will listen to you and INSIST on what you want if you become too overwhelmed or emotional to continue on your own behalf. And that is the trick – to find someone who can really interpret what you want, rather than what they think is best for you.

If you really do want a specific coffin outside your price range, ask for help from loved ones or for financing options. You will always remember the “last time” you saw your child and some of what the funeral director says about how you feel about the casket is true – the last image of your child’s remains, however or wherever they ultimately are handled, may be very important to your future emotional well-being.

Often parents wade through these options with older family members or friends who have more experience with burials or cremations. A good funeral director is one who will not turn all of his or her attention to the intermediary, but one who will also continue to include and listen to the parent — to give them the option to re-engage or disagree. Then they will quietly coordinate the collection of information and line up the appropriate contracts and payment arrangement for the individual or package of services desired. 

An example of things to consider

 Following an apartment life that claimed the lives of a mother and daughter, I was a first responder sent by the police department to help the family cope with the crisis. Shortly thereafter, I was asked by the grandparents to assist not only with the funeral arrangements, but also with the services. It was their wish that the mother and kindergarten-aged daughter be remembered and honored by the community and buried together.

 Because a small child had died, we knew there were be more than the usual number of children likely to attend the service, so we planned it with children in mind. The readings were simple – the message of God’s love of the sparrow – and the service was kept short. The grandparents wanted an open casket, and because the family members died of smoke inhalation, the funeral director managed to accommodate the wish by incorporating a viewing screen, so that other parents present who did not want their children to share the image of a mother and daughter together in one coffin could make a choice not to walk around the screen.

 The family wanted a Christian burial. We included the song “He’s Got the Whole World in his Hands” so that most of the children could sing with adults. It was an interactive ceremony at the podium, with family members and friends sharing pictures and stories about the mother and daughter. Needless to say, it was a terribly sad and moving service, regardless of how well it was approached, but… that was appropriate.

It was, after all, a terribly tragic event.

 My hopes for you in your time of sorrow

 My first and primary wish for you is that you will really be able to decide, with a competent funeral director or trusted others, the best arrangements to make for your child. I hope you know how your child died and that you have possession of the physical remains. (I have known parents for whom this was not true.)

My second best hope is that you are able to be comfortable with your final decisions for a long time, and will not second-guess yourself after the service(s) conclude. You will do the best you can during the hardest of circumstances; please remember that and give yourself breathing room.

There are some things you will have no control over. State law will dictate whether an autopsy is required. While families usually have the option (if not transporting a body over state lines) as to whether or not to have a body embalmed, funeral directors may refuse an open casket request for a body that is not embalmed. (Let me side with the funeral director here: Their business reputation very likely could be made or undone – perhaps years worth of exemplary service to their community — based upon by how “natural” your child looks to the viewing public if you opt for an open-coffin visitation. However, hair and makeup services can add about $700 to your costs.)

But when all is said and done, this will be the last act on earth you likely will be able to do for your child, as you will likely be told by the funeral director at least once. Emotions are unavoidable and hard to keep in check; the best funeral director will respect that and not take advantage of it.

Ultimately, do what feels right to you.

Thanks for joining me at the Bereaved Parents Watering Hole.


©2009: Glynn Patrick & Associates. All Rights Copywritten and Reserved. No part of this article may be reprinted without permission of the author.

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