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Talking to Children about Cremation
by Vicki Straughan, LMSW   Director, Dallas Kids GriefWorks

For most of us, burial has been the means we have witnessed for disposition of a body after death. Historically, pagan societies cremated the dead, while Christians have opted for burial. There is no specific teaching against cremation as a means of taking care of a body, and a trend toward cremation cannot be ignored. In the future, one third of the population of the United States may opt for cremation, rather than burial.

Because children grieve their losses in their way, they need to be kept in the loop of communication regarding matters of cause of death, as well as the type of disposition and ritual which will occur. Just because something makes us uncomfortable to discuss does not excuse lying to children about the deaths that occur in their lives. For the purpose of this topic, suggestions on how to talk with children regarding cremation will follow. Before any discussion with a child occurs, parents should consider the age of the child, the personality of the child, and the needs of the child. The younger the child, the simpler the explanation needs to be. The older the child, the more complex, complete and abstract the answers to their questions may be. Allow children to ask questions, any questions they want answered, then be prepared to answer them honestly. Some children are filled with curiosity and will want to know all kinds of things about death, bodies, funerals, etc. Other children are more introverted and will do their grief work internally. Just be sure the offer is made to communicate about anything, anytime. Some children are criers, others are not. Children need honesty, communication, and inclusion in rituals. Match your choice of language to the child’s ability to understand. Above all, always communicate that you and the child are going to be safe and cared for and that life will not always be this sad. In other words, while being truthful about the loss, communicate hope.

One way to facilitate healthy grieving is to have a time to say goodbye to a body before it is taken away for cremation or preparation for burial. Children may be included in this time of goodbye, but they should be prepared for what they will see and be supervised. Children given an adequate time for goodbye are given the opportunity to grasp the reality of the death. Children should be asked if they wish to have this time to view the body, and their wishes should be respected. Never force the viewing of a body. One small child given the opportunity to see her grandfather’s body, patted him and spoke comforting words, doing all this with love and without fear.

If a body has been disfigured, a child may be shown some part of the body, such as a hand or foot that remains unharmed. The rest of the body is covered.

What is cremation?

Alan Wolfelt, Ph.D. defines cremation for children as “putting a dead body in a room with lots of heat until it turns to ashes.”

Cremation is a process using a high degree of heat to reduce a body to small particles resembling sand or dirt. There may be some pieces of bone that are not made into small particles. To explain cremation to a child, a parent may exclude details about heat or burning, choosing instead to explain that cremation helps the body to return to dust as is natural following death. Educate a child to know that a dead body does not feel pain, so cremation does not hurt. Also, tell them that the people who handle the body are very respectful and will take care of the body until the remains are returned to the family. The remains of the body are then placed in a container, sometimes an urn, and are returned to the family who then make the decision where the remains will rest.

Cremated remains may be surprisingly heavy to a person holding a container of them. Adult cremated remains weigh six to eight pounds, while an infant’s remains may only weigh a few ounces.

What if a child wishes to see the remains?

Before you show a child the cremated remains of a loved one, it would be wise to view them yourself so that you are not surprised or taken back at the sight of the remains yourself. If you have viewed them, you can describe to the child what he will see. You might then ask if the child is sure he wants to see the remains.

Are there any books that can help explain cremation to a child?

A Child’s Book about Burial and Cremation by Earl Grollman and Joy Johnson. 16 pages. $4.95. This book has colorful illustrations, as well as space for a child to draw or write their feelings or questions.

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