It’s hard enough to explain to a child that a loved one has died. It can be even harder when that loved one has chosen cremation after death. Even though cremation is more commonly chosen today than ever before, the concept is still confusing to children and is less familiar to them than the burial of a body placed in a coffin. Therefore, explaining cremation brings with it several challenges.
The first consideration in deciding on the words to use is the age and developmental level of the child. Sometimes young children believe that the deceased loved one is still alive in some fashion just “up in the sky.” They generally believe they still walk around, eat, sleep, etc. For this reason, saying that what was once the loved one’s body has now become ashes doesn’t make much sense to children. Therefore, if the family has a belief in a “soul” or some other essence of the person separate from the body, this would be the time to explain that concept. A child will have an easier time accepting that the body is no longer in the form of a body if they believe that the deceased person’s “soul” has gone on to “heaven.” Of course, families that do not have the kind of religious beliefs that would support this explanation should not feel they need to use this language simply to make the situation more understandable to the child. Sometimes, it just takes time for children to grow into an understanding of complicated concepts they encounter very young, and cremation is certainly one of these.
It is always important to be honest with children when discussing death and cremation. However, honesty doesn’t mean using terms or descriptions that would be unnecessarily upsetting to them simply because they are true. For instance, it’s best not to use the word “burn” when describing the process of cremation because children can misunderstand what this means. They know that if they burn themselves, it hurts, so they draw the conclusion that if “Grandma’s body was burned so that it turned into ashes,” then it must have been very painful for Grandma. This only adds to their confusion and grief over Grandma’s passing. Instead, it’s a better idea to tell the child that Grandma’s body was put in a room that got very, very hot. And what happened was that the heat from the room turned her body into very light, soft ashes that are almost like powder.” It’s also helpful to explain that this is what Grandma truly wanted to happen after she died.
Another helpful strategy when explaining cremation is to discuss the purpose of the urn that now holds Grandma’s ashes, if that is what was done with them. This can be explained as “a beautiful way to remember Grandma because every time we see the urn with her ashes, we think of what a wonderful person she was.” If the ashes are to be scattered instead of placed in an urn, it can be helpful to have the child be present when this is done or to take them to the site where they were scattered if this has already taken place. Just as funerals are important rituals that help family members find some peace in their grief and loss, witnessing the scattering of ashes can be a meaningful rite that helps a child on the road to healing.