Coffee Cups and Cowboy Boots: Children and Funerals

By Joy Johnson
Issue 106 May/June 2001

Girl on couch with picture of mother in foregroundLynn and Jessica were nine-year-old twins. When their mother died suddenly, they helped their father select a casket and the flowered summer dress she would be buried in. But the twins felt that something was missing when they saw their mother laid out at the funeral home. They went home and came back with her favorite coffee cup, a bag of M&Ms, and their school pictures. The coffee cup went into their mother’s hands, the M&Ms lay at her side, and the school pictures were placed against the inside of the casket lid.

Rachael’s father died when she was 15. He was a terrific horseman and had taught her how to handle horses. “When I think of him now,” Rachael says, “I can almost smell the delicious scent of a warm horse and how my dad’s boots and jacket could fill a room with a rich leathery smell.” Rachael took her father’s worn riding boots to the funeral home and told the funeral director she wanted him buried in them. During visitation, and at the funeral itself, the boots sat on the floor beside the casket, surrounded by flowers. Rachael sat in the front row, proudly wearing her father’s favorite Stetson hat. “Even today, that hat hangs on a peg in my bedroom,” she says.

Americans are just now beginning to see the value of involving children in funeral planning and participation when a loved one dies. My Aunt Bess was born around 1905, and when she was four years old, her mother took her to her grandmother’s house, sat her on a chair in the foyer, told her to “stay put,” and went through the two big parlor doors. Aunt Bess’s feet did not even reach the floor, and she waited a long, long time. Finally her mother reappeared, crying, and hurried into the women-filled kitchen, never glancing at her little girl. I’m sure Aunt Bess’s high-topped shoes click-clicked as she scampered across the floor and pushed open the massive doors, just enough to squeeze through. Minutes later the little girl showed up in the kitchen and pulled on her mother’s apron.

“You don’t have to be scared, Mamma,” she said. “It’s just Grandpa in there being dead.”

Aunt Bess had been protected by a loving mother who did not know how to tell a four year old that her grandfather had died. But even in the days before Aunt Bess was born, when women crossed the country in wagon trains and buried their men and their children and their dogs, we protected our children from knowing about death. In the 20th century, we protected them during World War II when gold stars marked the homes of the dead, and we protected them as medical science gave us wonder drugs, conquered polio, and seemed to promise that we might not have to die at all. We protected them in the 1950s and 1960s, when the word cancer was not spoken and to die of it carried as much stigma as AIDS did in the 1980s.

Beginning in the 1970s, we came to understand that life is indeed a sexually transmitted condition that is 100 percent terminal. As we tell medical students who gather at our Grief Resource Center , an organization in Omaha , Nebraska , dedicated to providing emotional assistance to the bereaved, “One hundred percent of your patients will die…and so will you.” Our job, the job of nurses and hospice workers, the job of teachers and clergy and parents, is to remove the dark shroud of fear from death and help children see it as a natural part of living–a sad part, to be sure, but a natural one.

Children Need to Be Included
How can you explain to children why they were not made part of one of the most important events in the life of their family? Rozie was nine, her brother seven, when their mother died. On the day of the funeral they both dressed in their very best clothes and sat on their beds waiting for someone to come for them. They waited and waited, but no one came. Forty-five years later, Rozie was still working out that experience in therapy.

We are often asked, “At what age should a child attend a funeral?” Our answer is, “From the moment the child is part of the family.” We add that from age two on up, death can be explained; children should be told what they will see in the funeral home and what will happen.

Be Honest
Tell the story simply and honestly. Children are people readers; they know when you are hedging on the truth. And a parent or grandparent can be the best teacher when it comes to death education. I counsel people to say something like, “Grandpa died. His heart stopped beating and he doesn’t breathe in and out any more. When someone is dead, he doesn’t eat or go to the bathroom. Being dead is not like being asleep. When you’re asleep, all your parts work–you dream, you breathe, you toss and turn. When someone is dead, that part of him or her that was alive is gone. All that’s left is the body. The body is like a peanut shell without the peanut or a schoolhouse without any children.”

A grandmother was anxious because she was trying to hide her daughter’s suicide from her daughter’s six-year-old son. She was encouraged to tell the little boy the truth. “It is better that it comes from you,” she was told. “Children will tell him later. He’ll overhear family members talking. He’ll find out, and if he doesn’t find out from you, he’ll wonder why he was not trusted with this most important information.” Grandma went home and took her grandson on her lap. “Tony,” she said, “I have something very sad and very important to tell you. Your mommy was very, very sad. She thought that life was not worth living and that we would all be happier if she killed herself, and that’s what she did. She was wrong–we are all very, very sad. She was just so mixed up at the time that she didn’t realize how it would hurt us. What we need to remember,” Grandma said, holding Tony tight, “is that she was a good person, that she loved us very, very much, and that her life was important.”

Tony clung to his grandma, and they both cried. Afterward she told him that he could ask her any questions he had and could talk about his mommy at any time. She said that crying was good for them, and they could cry together whenever he wanted. Such an experience is freeing for both adult and child.

Let the Child Help Whenever Possible
Funeral directors generally want to do what is right for the children. If the children are willing, take them with you to pick out the casket. Let them know that they are an important part of the family and that grief is a family affair. If children are old enough to love, they are old enough to grieve.

Karen Kleine works as a funeral director in Grand Island , Nebraska . She encourages children to come to the funeral home, tells them what they will see before they visit the casket room, and then does something very special. After a casket is selected, the children in the family help Karen remove the mattress. She brings out step stools and ballpoint pens. The children climb onto the stools, lean into the casket, and create what she calls “heart art” on the inside casket bottom. “They’ll forget what they write in the letters that go into the casket,” Karen says, “but they’ll never forget what they drew there, what they wrote there, and what their loved one had close to their body forever.”

One little boy wanted to do more. With Karen’s permission, he took the pillow that would cradle his mother’s head and wrote on the back, “I love you, Mommy.”

Selecting clothes is another important way children can help. Whether it is the tie Grandpa wears, the handkerchief Grandma holds, or the whole outfit, kids have definite opinions. Sue took her two teenage boys with her to pick out their older brother’s casket, then she went home and pulled out a suit from his closet. The boys immediately disappeared into the family room and held a somewhat heated conference. Sue could hear their voices but could not make out what they were saying. Several minutes later the younger boy came to her, stood very tall and straight, and held out a sheet of paper they had prepared together.

“Mom,” he read, “we love you very much and we know how important this funeral is to you. We all picked out the casket together and we are having trouble telling you that we picked the color because it would look good with Shane’s jeans. He never wore a suit. We thought he’d be buried in his jeans and a sweatshirt. We wonder if you want to pick out another casket.” Sue began to laugh. She hugged her boys and said, “OK–but I get to pick out the sweatshirt.”

Children can participate in designing the funeral as well. They can help select or approve the songs, music, and readings. We have seen children read poems at funerals. When his surgeon father was killed in an automobile accident, ten-year-old Alejandro played the piano at the service. He had worked on the piece a long time and did a terrific job. When he finished, there was not a dry eye in the room. Everyone was filled with the beauty of this gift from a young son.

Two teenage girls looked at their mother lying in her casket and began to shake their heads. Her makeup had been carefully done by the funeral home, her hair nicely combed. Just before visitation hours, the girls returned with a small suitcase. They put it on a chair pulled up beside the casket, opened it, and began to work. When they had finished, Mom’s lipstick was bright red, her cheek color was direct from Elizabeth Arden’s bright collection, and her wispy bangs were just touching her eyebrows. “There!” one sister said. “You still rock, Mom,” the other added.

There is nothing frightening about a body. The only frightening thing is our avoidance and how often we miss out on what children can do.

Your Casket Will Float to the Top
Most funeral homes provide materials for the children to write on and encourage them to draw pictures. Janice Roberts of Boothbay Harbor , Maine , author of Thank You for Coming to Say Goodbye, hands out paper plates with large rims so children can draw pictures to put in the casket. The pictures are placed among the flowers during visitation and the funeral. The children themselves place them in the casket along with other precious things, such as letters and poems. As one Maine funeral director joked to some children, “If we ever have a flood in the cemetery, I’ll know your caskets. They’ll be the ones floating to the top with all that paper in them.”

We’ve seen action figures in children’s caskets. When an eight year old died, each of her classmates brought a Barbie doll and placed it in her casket. And more than one grandfather’s favorite fishing lure has rested on his burial pillow.

A delightful story was told by a daughter whose mother and aunt had spent every weekend together for years. The two sisters played pinochle, drank coffee, ate junk food, and lived in their housecoats. The daughter of the surviving sister drove some distance to be present for the visitation and funeral, thinking about how sad her mother would be, how she would miss those weekends with her sister. Very somberly she pulled into the funeral home to see her aunt’s body before going to her mother’s house. She walked alone into the room where her aunt lay, and as she approached the casket, she broke into a broad smile: her aunt was wearing her housecoat and holding a perfect pinochle hand.

We are all children when we grieve. If we are lucky, we have a child’s common sense, even when we’re old.

Closed Caskets and Cremation
We hope that children can view the body, but that’s not always possible or culturally appropriate. When the casket is closed, you can still explain death to children, much in the way we described the grandfather’s death earlier in this article. Cremation can be explained by describing a special room. You could say, for example, “There is a room, unlike any room we have in our house. There is special fire in that room, not like the fire in our fireplace. This is a very, very hot fire, and since our bodies are more than 90 percent water, the body really evaporates. It’s like an ice cream cone melting from the inside out. What is left is turned into a very fine, soft ash.”

John Chesnutt is a friend who did a remarkable job of involving his two children, five-year-old Dara and three-year-old Jefferson, when their mother was dying.

John took Dara outside their home and they sat together under a big tree. “Dara,” he said, “your mommy has fought her cancer for a long, long time and her body can’t fight any more. She’s going to die very soon. Now she will always be your mommy, and we’ll always love and remember her, but we won’t see her after she dies. After she dies, we’ll be sad for a long, long time, but we’ll still be a family, and we’ll be all right.”

John took a deep breath. “After Mommy dies,” he continued, “there’s this very nice man–you haven’t met him yet–he’s called a funeral director.” John then explained cremation, using almost the same words used above. “After we put the ashes in a jar that we pick out together, you may have more questions. Now, would you like to go with me and say goodbye to Mommy?”

Dara nodded and stood up. John started toward the car. Dara did not move.

“Dara?” John asked.

“What about Jefferson ?” she asked.

“He’s coming later with one of the grandmas,” John explained.

“No,” Dara said. “He should come with us.”

John went inside, got Jefferson , sat under the tree and told him that his mommy was going to die and they were going to say goodbye. Then he looked down at Dara. “Now tell him about the body,” she said.

“I did better that time,” John wrote to me. “Special room, special fire, saying goodbye. Questions later–and we were off to the hospital.”

“Picture if you will,” John says, “this woeful scene. We are sitting in the hospital. We are holding Bea’s hands and we have told her what a wonderful mommy she’s been. She’s told all of us everything she needed to say and we’ve said our goodbyes. I am nothing but mush. There’s this comfortable, close silence. Then this pipey little five-year-old voice says, ‘Tell her about the body.'”

When the funeral home called to say Bea’s ashes were ready, John and the children all went to bring them home. John spread a plastic tablecloth on the family room table and dumped the ashes onto it. He got the little blue ginger jar they had picked out together and gave himself and each child a tablespoon. As each one put a spoonful of ashes into the jar, a memory of Mommy was shared. When they were done, John put his hand over the hands of his children and together they sealed the jar.

Dara sighed. “This is so neat!” she said. “Can I take it to show-and-tell?”

Dara did not take the ginger jar to show-and-tell, but she showed us how children can deal with death if given a chance to ask questions, receive honest answers, and participate in family grief.

The Visitation or Wake
The visitation is a time to say thank you and goodbye, a time to receive comfort, share stories, laughter, and tears, and be with people who care. One of the first things we like to do at a visitation is distribute colored paper and a supply of pens to the children. They hand them to the adults coming into the room and ask them to write a memory of the person who died. Then the children gather the memories, design a cover, and put together a memory book for the family.

In Thank You for Coming to Say Goodbye, Dan Schaefer writes, “Kim’s children had done well during their first viewing before their grandfather’s funeral. Then it was obvious something was bothering them. ‘They think that Jack should be allowed to visit,’ Kim said. ‘Jack loved Grandpa and Grandpa loved Jack.’ Jack was an 80-pound German shepherd. During visitation, the children led Jack in, a funeral director helped lift him up to see Grandpa, and the children placed one of Jack’s paws on Grandpa’s arm.” Schaefer continues, “In my experience there are many adults and children who are not given the opportunity Jack had. Let’s hope that changes.”

“There is nothing we as funeral directors do,” Janice Roberts says, “that cannot be shared openly and honestly with children.”

Jan conducts special viewings just for children. The children arrive an hour before the regular visitation and are led into a separate room, where they all sit on the floor. Jan tells them how the funeral directors carefully go to the hospital or home and pick up the body. She tells how embalming is a lot like a blood transfusion or blood exchange, only using special chemicals. She shows pictures of the embalming room and describes how the body is bathed, the hair combed, and makeup applied. She shows pictures of the viewing room where their loved one is in the casket and tells the children exactly what’s in the room and what they will see.

Jan explains what death is. The kids ask questions. After the questions they have their own time with Jan, their parents, and the person who died. They touch the person if they want to (a body feels much like the cover of a book-room temperature, firm yet pliable), they touch the casket, they sign the guest book, and they settle in to draw pictures, visit with guests, pass out memory sheets, and share memories. Often the children end up standing with the funeral directors and shaking hands as people leave. As one 12 year old said, “Whoever thought this is scary is nuts! This is life, man!” Good words.

If the Child Does Not Want to Attend
We encourage you to urge your child to attend the visitation and funeral. When Lynn ‘s six-year-old son, D.J., died, his sister, Sara, didn’t want to attend the funeral. “I explained that we were a family, and this was an important family event,” Lynn recalls. “I told her I believed she would regret it later.” Sara just wanted to go to school and pretend nothing had happened, but she agreed to accompany her mother and father. “Years later,” Lynn says, “she thanked me for urging her to come. Actually, I almost insisted on it.”

Families who love together grieve together. If a child absolutely does not want to attend a visitation or funeral, don’t force him or her to do so. However, there are several things you can do to assist the child in his or her grieving process:

    * Make sure your child is in a safe place where he or she won’t receive guilt messages about not attending.
    * Take pictures. Pictures were taken at funerals as a matter of course until the 1940s. It is not a gruesome or strange thing to do; it is part of our history. People could not travel long distances quickly, so photos were sent. Take pictures of the body, of people who attended, of the room itself. Make them available whenever your child wants to see them. Many people take a video camera and ask a funeral director to take pictures.
    * Make a tape recording.
    * Write about the funeral in detail for later reading; include who was there, what happened, and who said what.

Do all these things, and tell your child you will talk about it whenever he or she is ready.

Your Own Fears
Most of our resistance to something new comes from our own fears. If you are a younger parent, you yourself probably were protected from the richness of saying goodbye and may hang on to some of the old myths and fears concerning death. “I want to remember her like she was” is a statement that really says, “I’m afraid to look and I’m afraid of my feelings.”

I have a very clear memory of being 16 when my friend, Stevie, died. My mother asked if I planned to attend the funeral in the church just across the alley from my house. I said no, and she didn’t push me. I put on my bathing suit and washed my dad’s car during the funeral service. As I washed I sobbed, listening to the hymns coming from the church. I didn’t go because I knew I would cry, and I did not want anyone to see me. Now I let people see me cry, partly because for 45 years I have regretted not going to Stevie’s funeral.

You Don’t Have to Do It All Alone
Grief exhausts you; it is the hardest work you will ever do. Sometimes, being your children’s teacher and conductor can be more than you want to tackle. If that is the case, you can ask a family member or friend to sit with you and care for the children at times. Inquire if there is someone at the funeral home who can stay near the children and answer questions. And tell the children exactly how you are feeling, explaining that they can depend on someone besides you to be there for them.

Expect Some Resistance
When you share your plans to include the children, you may meet with resistance from friends, family members, and others. In fact, you can count on it. You will hear any or all of the following: they are too young, they will not understand, they will be afraid, they will be a disturbance. If you take all those statements and substitute “I” for “they,” you will understand the reason for the resistance. Remember, for generations we have protected children and pushed them aside. Let the children do as much as they are comfortable doing. You will all be grateful in years to come. In summary:

    * Trust your children.
    * Explain honestly.
    * Listen to your children.
    * Encourage questions.
    * Use their ideas as much as you can.
    * Let them know what they will see, hear, and do.
    * Ask the funeral director for a special children’s time.
    * Make sure they know it is OK to cry and to laugh as well.
    * Expect young children to grieve, play, grieve, and play.
    * Tell them that you may cry, grieve, laugh, and even play as well.

Denying children an opportunity to be part of remembering and saying goodbye does not protect them; rather, it shuts them out of an event that can help them grow. How children grieve a death and participate in the rituals of our culture determines how they will face future sorrows and ultimately their own deaths. Guiding them now can reap rich rewards in the future.




Brown, Laurie, and Marv Brown. When Dinosaurs Die . Little Brown, 1996.

Fitzgerald, Helen. The Grieving Child . Fireside Books, 1992.

Hodge, John. Finding Grandpa Everywhere . Centering Corporation, 1999.

Johnson, Joy. Keys to Helping Children Deal with Death and Grief . Barron’s Educational Services, 1999.

________. Children Grieve, Too . Centering Corporation, 1999.

Johnson, Joy, and Marvin Johnson. Tell Me, Papa: A Funeral Book for Children . Centering Corporation, 1980.

Mellonie, Bryan, and Robert Ingpen. Lifetimes . Bantam Books, 1993.

Roberts, Janice. Thank You for Coming to Say Goodbye. Centering Corporation, 1993.

Schwiebert, Pat, and Chuck DeKlyen. Tear Soup . Grief Watch, 1999.

Scrivani, Mark. I Heard Your Mommy Died . Centering Corporation, 1992.

________. I Heard Your Daddy Died . Centering Corporation, 1992.

For more information about children and death, see the following article in a past issue of Mothering : “Talking to Children about Grief and Death,” no. 86.

Joy Johnson and her husband, Marvin Johnson , who holds a doctorate in ministry, cofounded the Centering Corporation nearly 25 years ago ( ). It is North America ‘s oldest and largest bereavement resource center. Together the Johnsons have written or edited more than 100 books on grief. Joy is the author of Remember Rafferty , a book for families whose pet dies, and, most recently, Keys to Helping Children Deal with Death and Grief . The Johnsons live in Omaha , Nebraska , and have six children, eight grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.

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