How to Explain Cremation to a Child

How to Explain Cremation to a Child

For many children, the death of a loved one may be their first experience with the concepts of mortality, death and dying. For others, the death may come at a time when they already understand those concepts, but may not know much about what happens after. In either case, National Cremation recommends that you keep a child’s developmental stage in mind when discussing difficult topics such as death and cremation.

One way to ensure that your explanation provides the right level of detail is to ask your child if he has questions. Following your child’s lead and providing the information they are most interested to know in an age appropriate way is the best starting point to ensure that the child understands cremation.

Younger children below school age may not really understand death, so it is important to ensure that they understand that their loved one will not be in any pain during the cremation process. A short explanation about death should be part of the discussion.

Explain that death is when the person’s spirit or soul leaves the body, and ensure the child understands that there is a difference between the body that we can see, and the spirit, which we cannot. When the spirit has gone, the body can no longer experience pain or any other feelings. A good analogy would be that the body of the loved one is now like the cocoon of a butterfly, when the butterfly has flown away. We might still be able to see the cocoon, but the butterfly itself isn’t there anymore.

Once the child understands about death, explaining cremation will be easier. Some tips to ensure your child understands the process and does not become afraid, include:

  • Keep your explanations simple and remain calm and matter-of-fact when discussing death and cremation.
  • Avoid using words that may cause alarm. Instead, you may say that the body will be put in a very warm room until it turns into ashes, and explain that this is a very peaceful process.
  • If your family has religious beliefs, these can be helpful in explaining what happens to the spirit after death, and where it goes after leaving the body.
  • Validate your child. Many children may be unsure if their feelings or questions are normal. Tell the child that it is okay to have questions, and that strong feelings of sadness or loss are normal and shared by others. Reassure them that you are there if they need extra support, hugs, or answers to questions.

A simple explanation that would be age appropriate for a younger child might be, “Grandma wanted to be cremated after she died, instead of being buried in the ground. Cremation is when a body is put into a very warm room and turned into soft ashes. Afterwards, the ashes are put into a container called an urn that we can keep or put in a special place where we can go to remember Grandma. The process is very quiet and peaceful, and doesn’t hurt or scare Grandma, because her spirit isn’t in the body anymore. Do you have any questions you would like to ask me about that?”

Older children, such as those in elementary school, may be ready for more detail. It is still important not to alarm the child; choosing your words carefully is important. But details about cremation will be less frightening, and they may be more curious about the reasons why a person might choose cremation over burial, such as impact on the earth. If you know the reasons why the loved one chose cremation, particularly if they are related to the loved one’s beliefs or values, it may be appropriate to share this with an older child. Again, asking your child questions and following their lead by answering these questions is wise.

Above all, be as honest as possible. Learning about death and beginning to grasp its meaning is an important developmental phase for children. Keeping your answers honest and brief, and allowing space for the child’s own questions and feelings will help them understand what is happening to their loved one, and learn an important lesson about the nature of life.

If you have questions or need help discussing cremation with your child, please contact National Cremation by filling out the form on this page.

Special thanks to Abby Schilling, location manager of National Cremation Minneapolis/Richfield, MN for her support and contributions to this post.