Involving young children in a funeral — Meg’s story

Group of people including young girl dressed in mustard carrying wicker coffin along woodland path

Seven minute read

When Meg’s beloved dad, Jonathan, was diagnosed with terminal cancer, she and her brothers knew they had to come together as a family. Here, she explains how involving their young children in her dad’s final days and his funeral was a joyful and natural part of saying goodbye to a man who loved life.

My dad was one of those special people who made you feel warm when you were with him. He had a joy in life, especially the little things, which was unrivalled. He was almost childlike in his wonder of the natural world.

A few years ago, he and my mum moved to Herefordshire and he found his perfect job — volunteering to look after owls and birds of prey.

He was silly, funny and clever, with a wine gum and ice cream addiction, and loved nothing more than being surrounded by his family. If we were all together, it would be pretty much guaranteed that he would be at the centre of a lot of mickey-taking. He pretended to bemoan it, but actually loved it.

When he was diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer in 2021, we swarmed. Our siblings and partners’ WhatsApp group was changed to ‘Family Assemble’. Not the easiest, when we were scattered between Herefordshire, Canada, Newcastle and Devon, but it happened. We assembled.

‘We told the children that he was sick and going to die’

My dad has five grandkids. At the time of his diagnosis, they were aged between three and seven years old., As a family, we agreed that we should be open and honest with the children about what was happening.

From the get-go we told them that their Pups was sick and was going to die. Apart from anything else, we were going to be together throughout whatever time he had left, so they were going to see it happening.

I naturally worried about how they would deal with it. They all processed it in their own ways, but on the whole they were all open, curious, sad and loving.

I worried that my two children would be scared that everyone they loved was going to die, but their questions brought about some really important conversations. We are, after all, all going to die and that doesn’t have to be a terrifying concept. It made me realise that so much of what I was trying to protect my kids from was my own fear.

Their conversations were frank and honest. Although my focus was to support them, they have helped me come to terms with my own mortality.

Read more about how to talk with children about death.

Meg's dad holding a baby goat, smiling

‘A time filled with heartbreak, laughter, tears and love’

That said, they occasionally might be a little too honest. My dad had cracked his phone screen and one of the kids said to him: “Don’t worry Pups you don’t need to buy a new one as you are going to die”! Or the time my son asked me if I thought the worms had got into his coffin yet.

I wasn’t quite ready for this, but I prefer that they feel that they can talk about death rather than it being a taboo subject.

Being together and looking after my dad (and my mum) over those few months was the most vital, life-affirming and difficult time. It was filled with heartbreak, laughter, tears and, most definitely, love.

My dad wanted to be with us all when he died. We were lucky enough to be offered a special place by the sea, that we all loved, and that would fit us all.

In those last days, my dad got to look out to sea from his bed and watch his grandkids playing in the field. They would pop in and out of his room, jump on him, tell him stories and generally be their normal selves.

‘We toasted him in champagne and chocolate milk’

The night before he died, we had a celebration in his room. Then we took it in turns to stay with him through the night. He died the next morning. After a lot of crying, we all got together in his room and toasted him. The adults had champagne and the kids had chocolate milk.

We then spent the whole day with him. It was a chance to talk and sit with him. The kids would come in and see what was going on, talk to him, touch his face or hand and then head off to play. There was intense sadness, but also the joy and comfort of all being together and of life continuing.

When Aaron and Peggy from Poppy’s team came to collect my dad, the kids ran to the van to talk to them and to tell them that their Pups had died. They loved seeing inside the van, climbed in and asked a lot of questions!

It is a tradition in our family to do a Mexican wave when someone leaves, so we all stood outside the house and did a Mexican wave as the Poppy’s van left with my dad.

Find out more about what happens at a home collection.

Willow coffin in grave with messages, foliage and coloured-in pictures of owls

‘We wanted the funeral to celebrate and reflect my dad’

We had talked with my dad about what he wanted before he died, so we had a clear idea of how we wanted the day of the funeral to feel. I remember Poppy saying: “Think about what’s important to you to have felt, said and done on the day”. That was really helpful.

We are so tied by what we know or imagine funerals to be, it’s freeing to think that there isn’t anything that you can’t do. It might be logistically challenging, but it’s possible.

We really wanted the day to be a reflection and celebration of my dad. There were some decisions that made us wobble a bit, as you don’t know how people are going to react, but we did stay true to what we wanted for the day. This meant it was as good as it was possible for it to be.

Firstly, my cousin Jess, whom my dad adored, led the ceremony for us. This was such a gift and made it so very personal.

We asked everyone to wear something mustard coloured, as my dad loved wearing that colour. Sometimes, he would even pull out a bold double mustard trouser and jumper combo!

At the burial ground, we had the coffin on a cart, attached to a rope that had been used in a tug-of-war at my brother’s wedding. We all pulled the cart together, using this rope, into the glade for the funeral ceremony. My seven-year-old nephew took the lead. The kids were free to roam around the natural burial ground, throughout the ceremony and burial.

Dad’s three kids, and their partners, carried the coffin to the graveside. My big brother read a quote from ‘The Subtle Knife’ about going back to the earth, trees and air. We put rosemary in the grave and bunting that the kids had made with pictures of owls and moths on it.

At first, I had wanted it to be just the close family involved in the burial but, when we talked about it with my dad before he died, he said, “No, that’s what people are coming for, that’s what they want to see!”

‘I love that the children still say his name’

One of the most amazing parts for me was filling in the grave itself. I thought that I might find it too difficult, but it was actually really healing. We had been warned that it is a lot of work moving so much soil, but we were determined to be the ones to put him back to the earth.

It started with just his immediate family. The kids threw in handfuls of dirt — we did have some people on guard to stop them falling in the grave! Doing something physical was so cathartic.

Everyone was digging, really digging, including the children. I think nearly everyone at the funeral picked up a shovel and helped lay him to rest.

I think the fact that the kids were so involved throughout his illness and his death, has meant that we all talk about Dad so much.

Any time that we see a bird of prey, the kids call out to it and we remember him. I love it that his name gets said a lot, especially by them, it makes him still feel present.

Read more: Explore our blogs about personalising a funeral or what a natural burial involves.

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