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Planning a Funeral or Memorial Service

Planning a child’s funeral or memorial service is something that no family can truly prepare for. Making plans during a time of grief is overwhelming. Most people have never planned a funeral or memorial service. Some may never have attended one, especially for a child. Knowing the steps involved and what questions to ask can help families navigate the decisions that have to be made during this difficult time.

Planning a child’s funeral is overwhelming. Knowing the steps involved and what to ask can during this difficult time. Families often choose to add something special to remember the child, such as flowers.

Planning a child’s funeral is overwhelming. Knowing the steps involved and what to ask can during this difficult time.

Services of remembrance usually share common goals: to gather family and friends together to remember a life, express sorrow and begin healing, and provide support to one another. Families may choose to have multiple gatherings. For example, a family may have a small graveside funeral service and then a larger memorial at a school or community center later. Factors to consider include family and religious preferences, time and travel constraints, the number of people who will attend, financial considerations, and personal touches desired.

There are no right or wrong answers in planning a service. Although the process is difficult, families say that there are some ways to help make planning easier.

  • Ask for help. Help is needed with different aspects of the planning process. Key support people often include a family member or close friend who help manage visitors, make phone calls, and coordinate immediate family needs. Families also need help from someone who can walk them through the details of planning. This person is often a funeral home director who advises and oversees arrangements from beginning to end. Including a trusted friend or family member in this process is important, especially if plans have not been made ahead of time. It is hard to make decisions under grief and stress, and there can be many choices and costs involved. A health professional from social work or hospice care may be available to help families with planning during end of life care. Depending on spiritual beliefs, many families also include a minister or spiritual leader to help plan and lead the service.
  • Focus on what is most important for your family. A funeral or memorial service is an opportunity to remember the special life of your child. Personalize the service in ways that are most meaningful to your family. Some families want to be involved in every part of the planning process. Other families may focus on 1 or 2 specific aspects that are most important to them. Be sure to let people know your family’s priorities. Also, inform others of specific religious elements or practices that should or should not be included.
  • Take it step by step. Many things have to be done in the days following a death. Whether or not the death was expected, there is no way to adequately prepare. Grief and stress make it hard to think and process information. Decisions are difficult, and they often have to be made in a short amount of time. A planning guide or checklist can help families take care of the things that have to be done. In most cases, the funeral home can provide information so families can know what to expect.

National Caregivers Library – Funeral Planning Checklist

Funeral Basics – Funeral Planning Checklist

Types of Services

Although they are often used interchangeably, the terms “funeral services” and “memorial services” can refer to different types of ceremonies. Traditionally, a funeral service refers to a gathering prior to burial or cremation with the body present. A memorial service can take place at any time and usually refers to a service that takes place some time after burial or cremation.

Honoring the Child’s Legacy

Finding special ways to celebrate the child’s life through a funeral or memorial service is an important way that families and friends find comfort and honor the child. This can also provide new memories and connections as families and friends come together to share stories and remembrances.

Personal elements can be included in services a variety of ways. Examples include photo and memory displays, eulogies by friends and family members, tribute videos, and specific music or readings.

Depending on their age, siblings may wish to be involved in the planning process. Siblings can play an important role, and their involvement may help them find comfort and support. The process of planning offers a specific way to talk about the death, grief and ways to cope as a family.

I have a beautiful strand of purple beads created from the flowers at Catie’s funeral. A friend gathered all the flowers after the funeral and sent them to a company that turned the flowers into beads. As each of our girls reached the age of seven, we gave them a special necklace or bracelet made from Catie’s flowers. Each of them treasures a happy memory today from a sad day that they really don’t remember due to their young age. I even have one set of white beads for our son; maybe one day he will find someone special for his beads.

Christine, mom to Catie

Families often look for ways to pay tribute to unique characteristics or memories of the child such as:

  • Special talents or traits
  • Interests, activities, or hobbies
  • Awards and accomplishments
  • Important people and places
  • Toys or possessions that hold particular meaning
  • Stories and specific memories
  • Favorite songs, books, sayings or verses

Involving the Child in Planning

One question many families have is whether the child should be involved in planning his or her own service. Many families find comfort in having their child help plan the service. Children may hold strong preferences about certain aspects of the service and may want to take part in planning. Whether families include children in the planning process depends on a variety of factors including family preferences, the child’s age and maturity, health status, and prognosis. For many children and families, talking about what happens after death and what the memorial service could look like is a source of hope and comfort. It can help take away some of the unknown and give children some control over what will happen. This can also provide an opportunity for families to connect with one another and create memories.

Ways to involve children include:

  • Clothing. Some children prefer family and friends wear casual clothes or a certain color at the service. Some children and teens may have specific ideas about how they want clothes or makeup to be done.
  • Food. Favorite foods may offer a comforting way of remembering loved ones. Some children may want their favorite food at a reception.
  • Music. Many children have favorite songs or performances that they would like during the service or at gatherings.
  • Speakers and eulogies. Children may want specific people to tell stories at their service.
  • Photos and memorabilia. Children may want to help pick out photos and objects to display on a memory table. This can also give families a chance to talk about memories of events and people who have special importance in their lives.
  • Ways to be remembered. Children may want to select ways that they would like to be remembered, such as through donations to certain charities or activities they would like others to do in their honor.

For resources to help with conversations about end-of-life care, visit The Conversation Project.

Making Decisions

As families plan for a service, options may be discussed regarding:

  • Type of service. Religious and family traditions often guide planning the type of service or ceremony. Services often include one or more of the following: visitation, wake, or viewing; traditional funeral service; graveside or scattering ceremony; memorial service after burial or cremation; reception or fellowship meal; gathering of family and friends.
  • Location. Most services are held at a church, funeral home or a community facility such as a school auditorium or graveside. Others choose a home funeral or place that may have significant meaning to the child or family.
  • Service participants. Families will need to decide who should be part of the service. These people often include clergy, family members, friends, or representatives of the school, or other social and activity groups. There may be some limitations to who or how many people can participate in a funeral or memorial service.
  • Private moments. Families can decide to have private moments or limit attendance to services. Funeral homes and churches often have special rooms that are reserved only for family and close friends.
  • Personal touches. Families often choose to add something special to remember the child. Some families use flowers, balloons or tree seedlings. Others request donations to benefit a certain charity or organization.

Important logistical decisions to consider include:

  • Determining date and time. There is no legal time requirement to complete a service. Families can choose what is best for them. Some spiritual practices require the service to take place within a certain timeframe. Also, families might consider whether people need time to travel to an out-of-town service.
  • Notifying friends and family. The obituary or death notice in a local newspaper and funeral home website is often a main way people learn about the details for a funeral or memorial service. Friends and family may also share the obituary on social media, email and telephone calls.
  • Caring for small children. It can be helpful to assign a sitter or family member to care for small children during the service. Some facilities may offer nursery services. Consider having a children’s room on site where adults can take children who need a break.
  • Recording the service. Families may want to plan to have the service recorded if appropriate. A family’s distress can make it hard to remember the day.

Additional resources that may be helpful include:

Funeral Planning 101

Remembering a Life


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Reviewed: June 2018