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Children's Funerals and Religious Beliefs

The spiritual beliefs of families, whatever they may be, often guide the bereaved through the grieving process. A researcher interviewing Australian families of recently deceased children investigated the role of children’s funerals in grieving.

Some of the Roman Catholic funerals, once considered somber, were described as joyous occasions. In one case, an eighteen year old anticipating her death from leukemia selected her own music (disco), while at another funeral classmates of a seven-year-old boy sang a hymn. Funeral services for Roman Catholics differ from those that are Anglican in that the former say prayers for the soul of deceased. Greek Orthodox services include a vigil, and a traditional service without music, which are followed by additional services on the ninth and fortieth day.

Even though many religions call for specific rituals, parents and families attempt to personalize their goodbyes by dressing children to their tastes and offering goods, or personal possessions, to go with them on “their journey”. Funerals for children have become more personalized, reflecting the music preferences and hobbies of the child. Families might recite poetry reflective of the life of the child. One eleven year old boy, aware that his death was impending, requested sparklers at his funeral so that “no one would be sad”. After the burial, a witness noted, it was a spectacular sight to see all one hundred attendees light their sparklers.9

Jewish funerals, on the other hand, follow strict procedures. No music is permitted at the service. All family members must attend funeral services. An adult male, usually the father, recites the Kaddish, a mourner’s prayer which must be read in the presence of at least nine other people, and must continue to be recited for a month after the death. A child is placed in a shroud with his prayer shawl around him. As in the practice of many other religions, the body must never be left unattended until the burial. Families sit shiva for seven days after the funeral, in which they remain home and perform no work. This mourning ritual allows the family time and space to grieve.10

With respect to infants who are miscarried, stillborn, or who do not live to thirty days, traditional Jewish response is that there is not to be any mourning as these children are not considered to have lived at all. The practice of not observing mourning rituals is based on tradition begun by rabbis during the Middle Ages, when many infants did not survive. Rabbis felt that relieving the parents of the obligation to mourn for a young infant, also relieved them from the burden of grief. Generally, in the Jewish faith, when neonates passed away, only three people attend the funeral. Traditional prayer is not recited, although tombstones have been found to sometimes mark the graves of these young infants. Modern Jews are attempting to change these practices. In keeping with modern research supporting the belief that parents must grieve their child’s death, the Conservative movement has established new legal responses which carry the full authority of Jewish Law. These responses allow for the body to be buried according to standard practice, for the baby to be named, for Kaddish to be recited, and for the parents to sit shiva, if they wish.11 For miscarried babies, or babies who were born prematurely, there is still some debate as to the appropriate mourning rituals, although some Jewish authorities state that families are encouraged to practice any rituals which would offer them consolation.

Funeral homes often offer services specific to memorializing children. While white caskets are traditionally used to bury children (symbolizing purity, as it always has), some funeral homes provide coffins decorated with teddy bears and other child-like themes. Some families might also choose to either audio or video record the service. As noted above, funeral homes can provide a wealth of information on bereavement, including recommended books, etiquette, and prayers appropriate for different family members. The website of one funeral home provides: “Prayer at the Grave of a Child”, which states “I stand at the grave of my beloved child, I tenderly recall the joys he gave me during his lifetime.. .The passage of years will never fill the void in my heart.”12

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