The death of a family member can have a profound impact on a child. Many parents and adults seek ways of explaining death and cremation to children in a way that makes sense to them. Often, they find it challenging to find the right words to say to a child who may not yet be mature or old enough to understand these concepts.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Quick Dos and Don'ts of Explaining Cremation to a Child
- Steps for Explaining Cremation to a Child
- Tips for Explaining Cremation to a Teenager
This will often be the child’s first experience with death, as they may be confused with the situation and not know how to react. However, children are no different than adults when experiencing the death of a loved one. Children just deal with death and grief in various ways and at different ages than adults.
Quick Dos and Don'ts of Explaining Cremation to a Child
Understanding your role in explaining cremation to a child as a parent or caregiver boils down to some basic dos and don’ts to help make the process go as smoothly as possible. Before getting started, consider learning as much of the process as possible about the cremation process.
Prepare yourself to answer all types of questions ranging from the matter-of-fact to the bizarre. Children don’t yet have a fully developed filter and may ask things that may seem inappropriate or even hurtful. Remember that they’re only being curious and have a need to satisfy their natural curiosity. Try not to show shock or emotion when listening.
Always leave room for questions. Young children are filled with wonder and curiosity. They’ll likely want to know every detail of the process, what happens to the body afterward, and many other things that may sound gruesome and gory to you.
Keep things as simple as possible, answer all of their questions, don’t make things up you don’t have the answers to, and always invite them to keep the conversation going. If your child doesn’t seem interested or doesn’t want to talk about it, respect their wishes but make it a point to come back around to the topic at a later time.
If you find that the concept of cremation is challenging for you to accept or understand, perhaps you aren't the best person to sit with a young child to talk about what happens next. If you aren't in the right frame of mind or emotionally prepared to do it, ask a trusted friend or family member to step in and take over.
You'll want to sit in on the conversation so that everyone's on the same page regarding what was said and how the child responded. Again, it's essential to keep your feelings and emotions under control when having this conversation.
Steps for Explaining Cremation to a Child
Explaining cremation to a child can be challenging. The process in itself is uncomfortable for many adults to imagine, much less explaining it to a young person. One of the first things to make sure of is that the child knows and understands that death is final and their loved one is no longer attached to their physical body.
You may want to explain the body in terms of old clothes that we discard as we put on new ones, or whatever makes sense according to your traditions and beliefs. Use caution that your explanation doesn't sound scary or is traumatizing. Here’s a few tips on how to do it.
1. Explain death
The first step in talking about what happens to a body when it’s cremated is beginning the dialogue with what it means to die. A child may not yet know what it means to die. They may not have experienced death before or understand the reason why a person’s remains have to be cremated.
When deciding to have this conversation with a child, consider their emotional development and maturity level when explaining death and cremation to them. You don’t need to go into particular details, but make sure they understand what happens when a body dies.
For example, you may want to explain to them that when a person dies, they’re never coming back, they aren’t just sleeping, and they no longer can feel anything.
You may want to use a pet’s death as a loose analogy in explaining death to a child.
2. Keep it simple
Use clear and honest language. Try and avoid euphemisms or flowery language that may confuse a child. For example, saying that their loved one has gone to sleep and is now resting in peace may trigger fears and anxieties of going to sleep and keeping warm under the blankets.
Overly complicating your explanations can confuse a child, too. Try using language that a child can understand based on their age and maturity level.
Be direct in your explanation while keeping things simple based on the child’s age. A child who is between two and three years old will have little understanding of death, while a child between the ages of eight and nine will remember the experience for many years.
3. Remain calm
You may want to keep aware that children watch adults as they grieve. They take their cues from an adult’s behavior and reactions to the death of a loved one. Children learn how to mourn from observing the adults around them. Know that it’s more than okay to allow a child to see you cry and grieve openly. Expressions of grief are healthy, and you shouldn’t hide them from a child.
However, you may want to remain calm when explaining cremation to a child. Allowing your emotions to manifest in the form of uncontrollable grief can confuse them.
Suppose you let yourself get overly emotional when explaining the cremation process to a very young child. In that case, they may misinterpret your feelings and think that cremation is something terrible that causes emotional and physical pain and suffering.
4. Don’t use scary language
Be careful to avoid using language that may scare a child. When a young person hears words such as fire or burning, they may get frightened and develop fear and anxiety. Try and explain cremation in simple but straightforward language.
Keep your explanation limited to the basic facts of the cremation process. Try saying something like:
- When a person dies, their body goes in a casket or other type of container.
- The dead body then goes to a building called a crematory.
- A crematory uses a unique process with lots of heat that turns the body into small particles that look and feel like sand.
- But, it’s not like the sand at the beach. It’s different, even though it looks similar. There are no dead bodies in the sand at the beach.
- When a person dies, they no longer feel anything. The cremation process doesn’t hurt because the body is no longer alive and cannot feel pain or anything at all.
5. Allow the child to ask questions
Expect that a child of any age will have many questions. Allow them the time to formulate their questions and encourage them to ask anything they feel like asking.
Answer them as honestly as you can, being careful with the words you choose. Make sure to use language at a level that is suitable to their understanding of death and dying and their maturity level.
Some children are curious by nature and will have lots of questions, while others will internally process your explanations. The children who hold things in may still have the same questions, but will wait for you to either give them more information or move on from the topic. Consider encouraging an introverted child to ask questions if they have any.
Try not to seem shocked at the questions you might get. Have some answers prepared ahead of time for some of the questions they might ask, such as:
- Does it hurt to get cremated?
- How hot is it when the body burns?
- Will the eyeballs fall out?
- What happens to the bones?
- How does a whole adult fit into a small box?
6. Give honest answers
Consider reading ahead of time some books on grief and how to console someone so that you know what to expect when having this conversation with a child. Sometimes a child will ask lots of pointed questions that may make you feel uncomfortable. A way to avoid getting caught off guard is by preparing yourself with some basic knowledge of the process and giving honest answers.
It’s okay to not know the answers to some of their questions. Giving a simple, “I’m not sure. What do you think happens with that?” allows the child to guide the conversation.
7. Ask the child’s permission
A young child may not be interested in the cremation process or what happens to the body after death. Consider bringing up the topic of conversation first and asking if the child is interested in knowing more of the details.
If the answer is no, then let them know that it’s okay to ask questions whenever they’re ready. Forcing the child to hear things they may not be ready for can have lasting and damaging psychological effects.
8. Figure out your feelings first
Before trying to explain cremation to a child, figure out how you feel about it first. Learn as much as you can about the process and decide on whether you want to see the cremains afterwards. A child should never be subjected to participating in grief rituals, seeing the body, or cremated remains without asking them first if they want to.
It may be that a curious child will want to take a peek inside the urn or box holding the cremains. If such a request is made, take a look at the cremains first so that you can explain to the child what they look like. Then ask them if they still want to take a look.
9. Let the child take the lead
A child who experiences the death of a loved one for the first time may be going through the stages of grief without knowing or understanding what they are. Talk to the child about their feelings, and ask them how they’re doing.
Let the child take the lead in explaining to you what is going on inside them without interjecting your own feelings or personal opinions on how they should be feeling. The child may not be able to fully express their grief, but giving them the opportunity to tell you about it helps them in processing what they’re feeling.
10. Help the child remember their loved one
There are many ways that you can explain the cremation process to a child. Some of them depend on your spiritual or religious beliefs. You may want to share some of what you learned about death, dying, and cremation from your own upbringing.
Together you can find ways of remembering your loved one who has died. Some ideas to consider are:
- Spreading the ashes in a special place
- Keeping some of the ashes in a locket or ring
- Placing the urn containing the ashes atop a memorial table
- Planting a memorial garden and sprinkling some of the ashes in it
Tip: If you're looking for something very unique, you can custom order an urn from a store like Foreverence or have a memorial diamond created from ashes with a company like Eterneva. Another unique option is transforming the ashes into cremation stones that you—and your child—can hold in your hands with Parting Stone.
11. Get help from a counselor
Telling a child about the death of a loved one can be challenging for many. If you’re uncomfortable and don’t know what to say, consider getting the help of a specially trained grief counselor.
A counselor not only helps explain death and cremation to the child, but can help them understand and cope with their grief.
Tips for Explaining Cremation to a Teenager
Teenagers process things in many different ways than younger children. With a teen, you can expect that they’ve already learned about the human body and its functions in school. Many teens have experienced death, either through someone close to them dying or through some of their peers at school going through this same experience.
But even when this isn’t their first experience with death, it may still be the first time someone they know and love gets cremated after they die. Teens may have many mixed emotions when someone they love is cremated. Here are some tips on how to explain the process.
Be direct in your speech
Teenagers don’t want you to sugarcoat things. They’re more attuned with what’s going on around them than you might give credit. Teens struggle enough with adults treating them as if they’re young children. Give your teen the recognition they deserve, talk to them in respectful ways, and show that you trust that they understand what’s going on.
Consider starting the conversation by asking them how much they know about their loved one’s death and make room for them to ask questions. When you allow your teen to lead the conversation, it makes them feel valued and respected.
Explain the decision to cremate
Your teenager should know how the family decided to cremate, especially when the choice goes against your family’s traditions or religious beliefs. Help explain that cremation is a personal choice as much as a financial choice in some cases. Whatever the reason your family chose cremation as an option for your deceased loved one, let your teenager know.
When cremation goes against your faith or religion, explain to your teen why you made the decision and how it impacts your religious views so that they aren’t confused or resentful later. Stress to them the importance of having individual freedom of choice.
Ask if they’d like to be there
When a close loved one dies and is cremated, being there for the cremation can either be traumatizing to a teenager or can provide the needed closure. There's no way to tell how you or anyone else will feel afterward until you go through the experience. It's essential to allow your teen to come to this decision on their own after careful consideration.
You may want to provide them with a pamphlet from the funeral home explaining all the steps before asking if they'd like to participate in the final ceremony. The decision should be theirs only after you've fully prepared them.
How Children Understand Cremation
When a child asks about death, dying and cremation, be prepared to answer them with a simple and straightforward explanation of the process. Some children’s maturity levels may allow for them to handle learning about the cremation process, while others may be traumatized by it entirely.
Pay close attention to the child’s demeanor and where they’re in the grieving process before deciding if it’s the right time to give them this information. If the child hasn’t shown any direct interest, it may be because they are not ready to receive this information.
If you're looking for more on how to talk to kids about difficult topics, read our guides on how to talk to children and toddlers about cancer and how to tell a child about putting their pet down.