Explaining Cremation

Cremation is a very recent funeral ritual in Ireland. The Glasnevin Trust guide leaflet Questions about Cremationis a useful guide (available at www.glasnevintrust.ie) for adults. But how do you explain cremation to a child…?

  • Mind your language: A younger child may not understand that the dead don’t feel, and words like ‘burn’ could be distressing as they associate them with fire, which is dangerous.
  • Don’t rush it: Give time and thought to any conversation with a child about cremation.
  • Age & stage: Consider the child’s age and personality when preparing what to say. An anxious child may find the explanation difficult.
  • Never assume: You can’t predict the child’s response – they may know more from TV and media that you realised.
  • Give context: Explain cremation in the context of other funeral rites, such as burial.
  • Wishes. Generally, it is the deceased person’s wish to be cremated rather than buried: the dead person doesn’t need their body any more, and wanted to have it cremated.

Having a conversation with a child about funerals and death when a funeral occurs in the local community (as opposed to in the family) can be useful. It allows a child to take in the information factually, yet with much less emotion. Showing a picture of an urn can be helpful. Urns have been used for hundreds of years for burial. They are depicted in many cultures, and found in lots of museums.

 A simple explanation for younger children:

The person’s body is turned into fine powdery ashes in the crematorium. These will be placed in an urn (which is a pot that will hold them). Afterwards these will be returned to their family. The family may scatter the ashes, or bury them in a special place that the person wanted them to go.

A simple explanation for older children:

At the end of the funeral service in the crematorium the coffin passes through some curtains out of sight. It is taken away to a special place where it is turned into ash. There are special people to do this work. When they are finished they place the ashes into an urn. The person who died (name) wanted their ashes scattered at the sea or in a place that they loved. So, the family can carry out their wishes in a short time from now.

Ask if the child understands, and be led by the questions that follow.

Suggested reading:What Happened to Daddy’s Body? by Elkie Barber